How the FTC Could, but Won’t, Use Its Rulemaking Authority to Allow Aftermarket Parts

Joshua D. Sarnoff —  10 May 2022 — Leave a comment

[The 15th entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium is a guest post from DePaul University College of Law‘s Josh Sarnoff, a former Thomas A. Edison Distinguished Scholar at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

We used to have a robust aftermarket for non-original equipment manufacturer (OEM) automobile repair parts and “independent” repair services, but car companies have increasingly resorted to design-patent protection to prevent competition in the supply of cosmetic repair parts such as bumpers, hoods, panels, and mirrors. The predictable and intended consequence has been to raise prices and reduce options for consumers, effectively monopolizing the separate repair parts and services markets through federal intellectual-property control over needed repair products or inputs to service markets.

Because this is a federal legal right, moreover, it preempts state “right to repair” laws that would authorize such products and services, either as a matter of consumer rights or as a remedy for anti-competitive conduct or “unfair or deceptive” acts and practices resulting from tying a monopoly over the original sales market for specific automobiles (protected by those intellectual-property rights) into a monopoly in the repair markets for those automobiles. Existing law under Section 102(c) of the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act does not explicitly prohibit such supply-restriction anti-competitive conduct when protecting against warranty requirements that would void warranties based on “tie-in sales” requirements that would void warranties if third-party repair parts or independent repair services are used by consumers. 

Unlike for functional parts of “machines,” which have always been subject to utility-patent rights, non-functional parts of machines were not (and still are not) statutorily authorized as the subject of design-patent rights. However, in 1980, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit—in an opinion by Judge Giles Rich—held that design patents can protect parts or fragments of “articles of manufacture,” the class of statutory subject matter for which ornamental design-patent rights can be provided.

By reducing the “size” of the thing to which the design-patent right applies—here, a part rather than an entire automobile (leaving aside the question of how machines get protection in the first place, when Congress hasn’t authorized it for design patents)—the historic right to repair a purchased machine without reconstructing it can be effectively overridden. This is because the third-party parts supplier is now constructing an entire part (e.g., a headlight) subject to design-patent rights, whereas they would have been authorized to make a part for use in repairing the entire car (and note that designs are supposed to be understood as a whole, not by assessing only parts of the objects to be protected—the article of manufacture).

In 2019, the Federal Circuit held that consumer desires to purchase and use replacement cosmetic auto parts to repair cars to their original appearance is not a “functional” requirement for which ornamental design-patent rights cannot be provided, and thus design patents protect against competition to supply such ornamental repair parts. As the court stated:

Our precedent gives weight to this language, holding that a de-sign patent must claim an “ornamental” design, not one ‘dictated by function.’…  We hold that, even in this context of a consumer preference for a particular design to match other parts of a whole, the aesthetic appeal of a design to consumers is inadequate to render that design functional.

This decision assures that design patents override both consumers’ “right” to restore the appearance of their products to the original condition and state or insurance-policy requirements that require the use of “must-match” aftermarket parts to do so. If the manufacture or import of aftermarket parts is prohibited by design-patent law, then obviously consumers and independent repair shops cannot use them to repair their vehicles, and insurers cannot control costs by paying for the use such aftermarket parts. This is true even when those aftermarket parts are superior in quality to the OEM parts, at lower prices.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in theory could address the over-extension by the judiciary of design-patent protection for cosmetic auto parts, by finding such repair-restricting practices relying on design-patent protection to be either anticompetitive or unfair to consumers. The FTC has already recognized the need to protect the right to repair products. In 2013, the Supreme Court held in FTC v. Actavis that conduct within the scope of granted patent rights may still constitute an antitrust violation. Using patent rights to tie repair parts and services to the original purchase market may violate either Section 1 or Section 2 of the Sherman Act. 

The FTC might also, in theory, extend antitrust principles beyond what is prohibited under the Sherman Act, using its adjudicatory “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) authority under Section 5(a)(2) & (b) or its rulemaking authority under Section 6(g). Some have argued that the FTC cannot or should not adopt prohibitions on anticompetitive conduct that does not violate other statutory antitrust laws, and that Section 6(g) rulemaking authority is limited to procedural rules and does not authorize substantive antitrust rulemaking, even though the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld such substantive rulemaking in 1973 (which would now be overruled if the issue reached the Supreme Court). I’ll leave that issue aside for now, even though it is often difficult to distinguish UMC from unfair commercial practices.

Instead, I’ll focus on the clearer and undisputed authority of the FTC to issue (admittedly procedurally burdensome) rules to prohibit “unfair or deceptive commercial practices” (UDCP) using rulemaking authority under Section 18 of the FTC Act. Under that section, subsection (a)(1)(B), the FTC can “prescribe … rules which define with specificity acts or practices which are unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” But the rulemaking authority does not define what “practices are unfair, except to refer to Section 5(a)(1)’s legislative declaration that “unfair … commercial practices” are “unlawful.”

In turn, Section 5(n) of the FTC Act defines an “unfair” act or practice as one that must “cause[] or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.”

For the reasons described above, use of design-patent rights (even if they may result in lower upfront sales prices of cars, because manufacturers may obtain additional profits through leveraging those rights to prevent an aftermarket in repair parts) should clearly qualify as “unfair” under this definition, even if Congress (at least according to the Federal Circuit, even if the statutory text doesn’t support that and only activist judicial interpretation is the proximate cause of the authority) is the source of the patent right that is being used “unfairly.”

“Common wisdom,” however, suggests that the FTC will not choose to exercise its “unfairness” authority beyond recognized categories of specifically and legislatively prohibited acts, just like with its antitrust UMC authority, without further legislative enactment. This common wisdom may be belied by the fact that the FTC updated its Section 18 rulemaking procedures in July 2021, and recently requested that the public bring complaints over illegal repair restriction practices to its attention and indicated that it would “prioritize investigations into unlawful repair restrictions under … Section 5….”

More importantly, “common wisdom” suggests that Congress restricted the FTC’s authority to impose broad new rules defining unfair commercial practices when it adopted the Section 18 rules in response to purported overreach by the FTC in the late 1970s under the Carter administration, as well as temporarily defunded the agency. But Section 18 does not substantively modify the FTC’s Section 5(a) authority (to which Section 18 rulemaking applies), and the common wisdom is likely incorrect that the FTC lacks the power to issue such rules (even if it lacks the willpower).

Since the 1980 legislative change to FTC’s UDCP rulemaking requirements, the FTC has been reluctant to engage in broad rulemaking to define unfairness in commercial contexts, although it has continued to enforce more vigorously prohibitions against deception against consumers, including through deceptive advertisements. The FTC has not issued any similar, generally applicable principles as to what constitutes “unfairness” in commercial practices.

Nevertheless, it should be clear that the FTC has the power to do so. But in the current judicial-review context, the FTC may be even more reluctant than during the past four decades to exercise such authority, as it may lead to judicial invalidation of its Section 5(a)&(b) authority to declare what practices are “unfair.”

As many administrative law scholars have noted, the Supreme Court has recently adopted a much more aggressive “major questions” doctrine for refusing deference to agency interpretations of the scope of their regulatory authority. Instead of lack of deference, the Court has imposed a new and restrictive “clear statement” rule, requiring greater legislative specificity before finding that an agency possesses regulatory authority to take challenged actions. Accordingly, should the FTC issue a new, broad unfair commercial practices rule under Section 18 prohibiting the use of design patents to prevent aftermarket parts from being manufactured—on grounds that it is “unfair” to consumers and adversely affects their “right” of repair—then absent significant change to the Court’s composition, that rule will likely be invalidated because Congress did not define “unfairness” with sufficient specificity.

Even more importantly, such a rule would provide a very “good” test case for a Supreme Court itching to revive the non-delegation doctrine and to hamstring the administrative regulatory apparatus. Thus, the FTC might rightly fear outright repeal of its Section 5(a) as well as its Section 18 (and Section 6g substantive rulemaking) authority should it adopt an aggressive consumer-protection approach.

In conclusion, given the likely lack of political will on the FTC—in light of the likely response of the Supreme Court should the FTC exercise its legislatively conferred power in a consumer-friendly fashion—the use of design patents to restrict the right to repair is a problem that Congress should and must fix. Congress should do so both by adopting a right-to-repair law (such as the Fair Repair Act) and by amending the design-patent act to ensure that the consumer right to repair can be effectuated.

Since broad legislation to accomplish this in a general right-to-repair law or in a modification of the design-patent law that overturns partial and fragment protection for machines directly is likely to face significant opposition, Congress should at least act swiftly to pass the pending SMART Act, which provides that manufacture, import, and offer for sale of design-patented cosmetic automobile repair parts is not an act of infringement, and permits sale and use of those parts after a limited period of exclusivity (30 months) that assures more than sufficient returns on investment in such parts-design development. That way, consumers will be protected in regard to the second most valuable purchase they can make (the first being their home) and the one that is most likely to need repair given the continuing, widespread problem of traffic accidents (the subject of different consumer protection measures that are needed).

Joshua D. Sarnoff

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Joshua D. Sarnoff is a professor of law at DePaul University

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