FTC v. Qualcomm: A Case of Regulatory Capture?

Jonathan M. Barnett —  18 July 2019

[TOTM: The following is the sixth in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the FTC v. Qualcomm case recently decided by Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California. Other posts in this series are here.

This post is authored by Jonathan M. Barnett, Torrey H. Webb Professor of Law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.]

There is little doubt that the decision in May 2019 by the Northern District of California in FTC v. Qualcomm is of historical importance. Unless reversed or modified on appeal, the decision would require that the lead innovator behind 3G and 4G smartphone technology renegotiate hundreds of existing licenses with device producers and offer new licenses to any interested chipmakers.

The court’s sweeping order caps off a global campaign by implementers to re-engineer the property-rights infrastructure of the wireless markets. Those efforts have deployed the instruments of antitrust and patent law to override existing licensing arrangements and thereby reduce the input costs borne by device producers in the downstream market. This has occurred both directly, in arguments made by those firms in antitrust and patent litigation or through the filing of amicus briefs, or indirectly by advocating that regulators bring antitrust actions against IP licensors.

Whether or not FTC v. Qualcomm is correctly decided largely depends on whether or not downstream firms’ interest in minimizing the costs of obtaining technology inputs from upstream R&D specialists aligns with the public interest in preserving dynamically efficient innovation markets. As I discuss below, there are three reasons to believe those interests are not aligned in this case. If so, the court’s order would simply engineer a wealth transfer from firms that have led innovation in wireless markets to producers that have borne few of the costs and risks involved in doing so. Members of the former group each exhibits R&D intensities (R&D expenditures as a percentage of sales) in the high teens to low twenties; the latter, approximately five percent. Of greater concern, the court’s upending of long-established licensing arrangements endangers business models that monetize R&D by licensing technology to a large pool of device producers (see Qualcomm), rather than earning returns through self-contained hardware and software ecosystems (see Apple). There is no apparent antitrust rationale for picking and choosing among these business models in innovation markets.

Reason #1: FRAND is a Two-Sided Deal

To fully appreciate the recent litigations involving the FTC and Apple on the one hand, and Qualcomm on the other hand, it is necessary to return to the origins of modern wireless markets.

Starting in the late 1980s, various firms were engaged in the launch of the GSM wireless network in Western Europe. At that time, each European telecom market typically consisted of a national monopoly carrier and a favored group of local equipment suppliers. The GSM project, which envisioned a trans-national wireless communications market, challenged this model. In particular, the national carrier and equipment monopolies were threatened by the fact that the GSM standard relied in part on patented technology held by an outside innovator—namely, Motorola. As I describe in a forthcoming publication, the “FRAND” (fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory) principles that today govern the licensing of standard-essential patents in wireless markets emerged from a negotiation between, on the one hand, carriers and producers who sought a royalty cap and, on the other hand, a technology innovator that sought to preserve its licensing freedom going forward.

This negotiation history is important. Any informed discussion of the meaning of FRAND must recognize that this principle was adopted as something akin to a “good faith” contractual term designed to promote two objectives:

  1. Protect downstream adopters from holdup tactics by upstream innovators; and
  2. enable upstream innovators to enjoy an appreciable portion of the value generated by sales in the consumer market.

Any interpretation of FRAND that does not meet these conditions will induce upstream firms to reduce R&D investment, limit participation in standard-setting activities, or vertically integrate forward to capture directly a return on R&D dollars.

Reason #2: No Evidence of Actual Harm

In the December 2018 appellate court proceedings in which the Department of Justice unsuccessfully challenged the AT&T/Time-Warner merger, Judge David Sentelle of the D.C. Circuit said to the government’s legal counsel:

If you’re going to rely on an economic model, you have to rely on it with quantification. The bare theorem . . . doesn’t prove anything in a particular case.

The government could not credibly reply to that query in the AT&T case and, if appropriately challenged, could not do so in this case.

Far from being a market that calls out for federal antitrust intervention, the smartphone market offers what appears to be an almost textbook case of dynamic efficiency. For over a decade, implementers, along with sympathetic regulators and commentators, have argued that the market suffers (or, in a variation, will imminently suffer) from inflated prices, reduced output and delayed innovation as a result of “patent hold-up” and “royalty stacking” by opportunistic patent owners. In the course of several decades that have passed since the launch of the GSM network, none of these predictions have yet to materialize. To the contrary. The market has exhibited expanding output, declining prices (adjusted for increased functionality), constant innovation, and regular entry into the production market. Multiple empirical studies (e.g. this, this and this) have found that device producers bear on average an aggregate royalty burden in the single to mid-digits.

This hardly seems like a market in which producers and consumers are being “victimized” by what the Northern District of California calls “unreasonably high” licensing fees (compared to an unspecified, and inherently unspecifiable, dynamically efficient benchmark). Rather, it seems more likely that device producers—many of whom provided the testimony which the court referenced in concluding that royalty rates were “unreasonably high”—would simply prefer to pay an even lower fee to R&D input suppliers (with no assurance that any of the cost-savings would flow to consumers).

Reason #3: The “License as Tax” Fallacy

The rhetorical centerpiece of the FTC’s brief relied on an analogy between the patent license fees earned by Qualcomm in the downstream device market and the tax that everyone pays to the IRS. The court’s opinion wholeheartedly adopted this narrative, determining that Qualcomm imposes a tax (or, as Judge Koh terms it, a “surcharge”) on the smartphone market by demanding a fee from OEMs for use of its patent portfolio whether or not the OEM purchases chipsets from Qualcomm or another firm. The tax analogy is fundamentally incomplete, both in general and in this case in particular.

It is true that much of the economic literature applies monopoly taxation models to assess the deadweight losses attributed to patents. While this analogy facilitates analytical tractability, a “zero-sum” approach to patent licensing overlooks the value-creating “multiplier” effect that licensing generates in real-world markets. Specifically, broad-based downstream licensing by upstream patent owners—something to which SEP owners commit under FRAND principles—ensures that device makers can obtain the necessary technology inputs and, in doing so, facilitates entry by producers that do not have robust R&D capacities. All of that ultimately generates gains for consumers.

This “positive-sum” multiplier effect appears to be at work in the smartphone market. Far from acting as a tax, Qualcomm’s licensing policies appear to have promoted entry into the smartphone market, which has experienced fairly robust turnover in market leadership. While Apple and Samsung may currently dominate the U.S. market, they face intense competition globally from Chinese firms such as Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo. That competitive threat is real. As of 2007, Nokia and Blackberry were the overwhelming market leaders and appeared to be indomitable. Yet neither can be found in the market today. That intense “gale of competition”, sustained by the fact that any downstream producer can access the required technology inputs upon payment of licensing fees to upstream innovators, challenges the view that Qualcomm’s licensing practices have somehow restrained market growth.

Concluding Thoughts: Antitrust Flashback

When competitive harms are so unclear (and competitive gains so evident), modern antitrust law sensibly prescribes forbearance. A famous “bad case” from antitrust history shows why.

In 1953, the Department of Justice won an antitrust suit against United Shoe Machinery Corporation, which had led innovation in shoe manufacturing equipment and subsequently dominated that market. United Shoe’s purportedly anti-competitive practices included a lease-only policy that incorporated training and repair services at no incremental charge. The court found this to be a coercive tie that preserved United Shoe’s dominant position, despite the absence of any evidence of competitive harm. Scholars have subsequently shown (e.g. this and  this; see also this) that the court did not adequately consider (at least) two efficiency explanations: (1) lease-only policies were widespread in the market because this facilitated access by smaller capital-constrained manufacturers, and (2) tying support services to equipment enabled United Shoe to avoid free-riding on its training services by other equipment suppliers. In retrospect, courts relied on a mere possibility theorem ultimately to order the break-up of a technological pioneer, with potentially adverse consequences for manufacturers that relied on its R&D efforts.

The court’s decision in FTC v. Qualcomm is a flashback to cases like United Shoe in which courts found liability and imposed dramatic remedies with little economic inquiry into competitive harm. It has become fashionable to assert that current antitrust law is too cautious in finding liability. Yet there is a sound reason why, outside price-fixing, courts generally insist that theories of antitrust liability include compelling evidence of competitive harm. Antitrust remedies are strong medicine and should be administered with caution. If courts and regulators do not zealously scrutinize the factual support for antitrust claims, then they are vulnerable to capture by private entities whose business objectives may depart from the public interest in competitive markets. While no antitrust fact-pattern is free from doubt, over two decades of market performance strongly favor the view that long-standing licensing arrangements in the smartphone market have resulted in substantial net welfare gains for consumers. If so, the prudent course of action is simply to leave the market alone.