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On August 14, the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project released a report detailing the harm imposed on innovation and property rights by the Patent Trial and Appeals Board, a Patent and Trademark Office patent review agency created by the infelicitously-named “America Invents Act” of 2011.  As the report’s abstract explains:

Patents are property rights secured to inventors of new products or services, such as the software and other high-tech innovations in our laptops and smart phones, the life-saving medicines prescribed by our doctors, and the new mechanical designs that make batteries more efficient and airplane engines more powerful. Many Americans first learn in school about the great inventors who revolutionized our lives with their patented innovations, such as Thomas Edison (the light bulb and record player), Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone), Nikola Tesla (electrical systems), the Wright brothers (airplanes), Charles Goodyear (cured rubber), Enrico Fermi (nuclear power), and Samuel Morse (the telegraph). These inventors and tens of thousands of others had the fruits of their inventive labors secured to them by patents, and these vital property rights have driven America’s innovation economy for over 225 years. For this reason, the United States has long been viewed as having the “gold standard” patent system throughout the world.

In 2011, Congress passed a new law, called the America Invents Act (AIA), that made significant changes to the U.S. patent system. Among its many changes, the AIA created a new administrative tribunal for invalidating “bad patents” (patents mistakenly issued because the claimed inventions were not actually new or because they suffer from other defects that create problems for companies in the innovation economy). This administrative tribunal is called the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB). The PTAB is composed of “administrative patent judges” appointed by the Director of the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO). The PTAB administrative judges are supposed to be experts in both technology and patent law. They hold administrative hearings in response to petitions that challenge patents as defective. If they agree with the challenger, they cancel the patent by declaring it “invalid.” Anyone in the world willing to pay a filing fee can file a petition to invalidate any patent.

As many people are aware, administrative agencies can become a source of costs and harms that far outweigh the harms they were created to address. This is exactly what has happened with the PTAB. This administrative tribunal has become a prime example of regulatory overreach

Congress created the PTAB in 2011 in response to concerns about the quality of patents being granted to inventors by the USPTO. Legitimate patents promote both inventive activity and the commercial development of inventions into real-world innovation used by regular people the world over. But “bad patents” clog the intricate gears of the innovation economy, deterring real innovators and creating unnecessary costs for companies by enabling needless and wasteful litigation. The creation of the PTAB was well intended: it was supposed to remove bad patents from the innovation economy. But the PTAB has ended up imposing tremendous and unnecessary costs and creating destructive uncertainty for the innovation economy.

In its procedures and its decisions, the PTAB has become an example of an administrative tribunal run amok. It does not provide basic legal procedures to patent owners that all other property owners receive in court. When called upon to redress these concerns, the courts have instead granted the PTAB the same broad deference they have given to other administrative agencies. Thus, these problems have gone uncorrected and unchecked. Without providing basic procedural protections to all patent owners, the PTAB has gone too far with its charge of eliminating bad patents. It is now invalidating patents in a willy-nilly fashion. One example among many is that, in early 2017, the PTAB invalidated a patent on a new MRI machine because it believed this new medical device was an “abstract idea” (and thus unpatentable).

The problems in the PTAB’s operations have become so serious that a former federal appellate chief judge has referred to PTAB administrative judges as “patent death squads.” This metaphor has proven apt, even if rhetorically exaggerated. Created to remove only bad patents clogging the innovation economy, the PTAB has itself begun to clog innovation — killing large numbers of patents and casting a pall of uncertainty over every patent that might become valuable and thus a target of a PTAB petition to invalidate it.

The U.S. innovation economy has thrived because inventors know they can devote years of productive labor and resources into developing their inventions for the marketplace, secure in the knowledge that their patents provide a solid foundation for commercialization. Pharmaceutical companies depend on their patents to recoup billions of dollars in research and development of new drugs. Venture capitalists invest in startups on the basis of these vital property rights in new products and services, as viewers of Shark Tank see every week.

The PTAB now looms over all of these inventive and commercial activities, threatening to cancel a valuable patent at any moment and without rhyme or reason. In addition to the lost investments in the invalidated patents themselves, this creates uncertainty for inventors and investors, undermining the foundations of the U.S. innovation economy.

This paper explains how the PTAB has become a prime example of regulatory overreach. The PTAB administrative tribunal is creating unnecessary costs for inventors and companies, and thus it is harming the innovation economy far beyond the harm of the bad patents it was created to remedy. First, we describe the U.S. patent system and how it secures property rights in technological innovation. Second, we describe Congress’s creation of the PTAB in 2011 and the six different administrative proceedings the PTAB uses for reviewing and canceling patents. Third, we detail the various ways that the PTAB is now causing real harm, through both its procedures and its substantive decisions, and thus threatening innovation.

The PTAB has created fundamental uncertainty about the status of all patent rights in inventions. The result is that the PTAB undermines the market value of patents and frustrates the role that these property rights serve in the investment in and commercial development of the new technological products and services that make many aspects of our modern lives seem like miracles.

In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the Oil States Energy case, raising the question of whether PTAB patent review “violates the Constitution by extinguishing private property rights through a non-Article III forum without a jury.”  A Supreme Court finding of unconstitutionality would be ideal.  But in the event the Court leaves PTAB patent review intact, legislation to curb the worst excesses of PTAB – such as the bipartisan “STRONGER Patent Act of 2017” – merits serious consideration.  Stay tuned – I will have more to say in detail about potential patent law reforms, including the reining in of PTAB, in the near future.

On July 24, as part of their newly-announced “Better Deal” campaign, congressional Democrats released an antitrust proposal (“Better Deal Antitrust Proposal” or BDAP) entitled “Cracking Down on Corporate Monopolies and the Abuse of Economic and Political Power.”  Unfortunately, this antitrust tract is really an “Old Deal” screed that rehashes long-discredited ideas about “bigness is badness” and “corporate abuses,” untethered from serious economic analysis.  (In spirit it echoes the proposal for a renewed emphasis on “fairness” in antitrust made by then Acting Assistant Attorney General Renata Hesse in 2016 – a recommendation that ran counter to sound economics, as I explained in a September 2016 Truth on the Market commentary.)  Implementation of the BDAP’s recommendations would be a “worse deal” for American consumers and for American economic vitality and growth.

The BDAP’s Portrayal of the State of Antitrust Enforcement is Factually Inaccurate, and it Ignores the Real Problems of Crony Capitalism and Regulatory Overreach

The Better Deal Antitrust Proposal begins with the assertion that antitrust has failed in recent decades:

Over the past thirty years, growing corporate influence and consolidation has led to reductions in competition, choice for consumers, and bargaining power for workers.  The extensive concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations hurts wages, undermines job growth, and threatens to squeeze out small businesses, suppliers, and new, innovative competitors.  It means higher prices and less choice for the things the American people buy every day. . .  [This is because] [o]ver the last thirty years, courts and permissive regulators have allowed large companies to get larger, resulting in higher prices and limited consumer choice in daily expenses such as travel, cable, and food and beverages.  And because concentrated market power leads to concentrated political power, these companies deploy armies of lobbyists to increase their stranglehold on Washington.  A Better Deal on competition means that we will revisit our antitrust laws to ensure that the economic freedom of all Americans—consumers, workers, and small businesses—come before big corporations that are getting even bigger.

This statement’s assertions are curious (not to mention problematic) in multiple respects.

First, since Democratic administrations have held the White House for sixteen of the past thirty years, the BDAP appears to acknowledge that Democratic presidents have overseen a failed antitrust policy.

Second, the broad claim that consumers have faced higher prices and limited consumer choice with regard to their daily expenses is baseless.  Indeed, internet commerce and new business models have sharply reduced travel and entertainment costs for the bulk of American consumers, and new “high technology” products such as smartphones and electronic games have been characterized by dramatic improvements in innovation, enhanced variety, and relatively lower costs.  Cable suppliers face vibrant competition from competitive satellite providers, fiberoptic cable suppliers (the major telcos such as Verizon), and new online methods for distributing content.  Consumer price inflation has been extremely low in recent decades, compared to the high inflationary, less innovative environment of the 1960s and 1970s – decades when federal antitrust law was applied much more vigorously.  Thus, the claim that weaker antitrust has denied consumers “economic freedom” is at war with the truth.

Third, the claim that recent decades have seen the creation of “concentrated market power,” safe from antitrust challenge, ignores the fact that, over the last three decades, apolitical government antitrust officials under both Democratic and Republican administrations have applied well-accepted economic tools (wielded by the scores of Ph.D. economists in the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission) in enforcing the antitrust laws.  Antitrust analysis has used economics to focus on inefficient business conduct that would maintain or increase market power, and large numbers of cartels have been prosecuted and questionable mergers (including a variety of major health care and communications industry mergers) have been successfully challenged.  The alleged growth of “concentrated market power,” untouched by incompetent antitrust enforcers, is a myth.  Furthermore, claims that mere corporate size and “aggregate concentration” are grounds for antitrust concern (“big is bad”) were decisively rejected by empirical economic research published in the 1970s, and are no more convincing today.  (As I pointed out in a January 2017 blog posting at this site, recent research by highly respected economists debunks a few claims that federal antitrust enforcers have been “excessively tolerant” of late in analyzing proposed mergers.)

More interesting is the BDAP’s claim that “armies of [corporate] lobbyists” manage to “increase their stranglehold on Washington.”  This is not an antitrust concern, however, but, rather, a complaint against crony capitalism and overregulation, which became an ever more serious problem under the Obama Administration.  As I explained in my October 2016 critique of the American Antitrust Institute’s September 2008 National Competition Policy Report (a Report which is very similar in tone to the BDAP), the rapid growth of excessive regulation during the Obama years has diminished competition by creating new regulatory schemes that benefit entrenched and powerful firms (such as Dodd-Frank Act banking rules that impose excessive burdens on smaller banks).  My critique emphasized that, “as Dodd-Frank and other regulatory programs illustrate, large government rulemaking schemes often are designed to favor large and wealthy well-connected rent-seekers at the expense of smaller and more dynamic competitors.”  And, more generally, excessive regulatory burdens undermine the competitive process, by distorting business decisions in a manner that detracts from competition on the merits.

It follows that, if the BDAP really wanted to challenge “unfair” corporate advantages, it would seek to roll back excessive regulation (see my November 2012 article on Trump Administration competition policy).  Indeed, the Trump Administration’s regulatory reform program (which features agency-specific regulatory reform task forces) seeks to do just that.  Perhaps then the BDAP could be rewritten to focus on endorsing President Trump’s regulatory reform initiative, rather than emphasizing a meritless “big is bad” populist antitrust policy that was consigned to the enforcement dustbin decades ago.

The BDAP’s Specific Proposals Would Harm the Economy and Reduce Consumer Welfare

Unfortunately, the BDAP does more than wax nostalgic about old-time “big is bad” antitrust policy.  It affirmatively recommends policy changes that would harm the economy.

First, the BDAP would require “a broader, longer-term view and strong presumptions that market concentration can result in anticompetitive conduct.”  Specifically, it would create “new standards to limit large mergers that unfairly consolidate corporate power,” including “mergers [that] reduce wages, cut jobs, lower product quality, limit access to services, stifle innovation, or hinder the ability of small businesses and entrepreneurs to compete.”  New standards would also “explicitly consider the ways in which control of consumer data can be used to stifle competition or jeopardize consumer privacy.”

Unlike current merger policy, which evaluates likely competitive effects, centered on price and quality, estimated in economically relevant markets, these new standards are open-ended.  They could justify challenges based on such a wide variety of factors that they would incentivize direct competitors not to merge, even in cases where the proposed merged entity would prove more efficient and able to enhance quality or innovation.  Certain less efficient competitors – say small businesses – could argue that they would be driven out of business, or that some jobs in the industry would disappear, in order to prompt government challenges.  But such challenges would tend to undermine innovation and business improvements, and the inevitable redistribution of assets to higher-valued uses that is a key benefit of corporate reorganizations and acquisitions.  (Mergers might focus instead, for example, on inefficient conglomerate acquisitions among companies in unrelated industries, which were incentivized by the overly strict 1960s rules that prohibited mergers among direct competitors.)  Such a change would represent a retreat from economic common sense, and be at odds with consensus economically-sound merger enforcement guidance that U.S. enforcers have long recommended other countries adopt.  Furthermore, questions of consumer data and privacy are more appropriately dealt with as consumer protection questions, which the Federal Trade Commission has handled successfully for years.

Second, the BDAP would require “frequent, independent [after-the-fact] reviews of mergers” and require regulators “to take corrective measures if they find abusive monopolistic conditions where previously approved [consent decree] measures fail to make good on their intended outcomes.”

While high profile mergers subject to significant divestiture or other remedial requirements have in appropriate circumstances included monitoring requirements, the tone of this recommendation is to require that far more mergers be subjected to detailed and ongoing post-acquisition reviews.  The cost of such monitoring is substantial, however, and routine reliance on it (backed by the threat of additional enforcement actions based merely on changing economic conditions) could create excessive caution in the post-merger management of newly-consolidated enterprises.  Indeed, potential merged parties might decide in close cases that this sort of oversight is not worth accepting, and therefore call off potentially efficient transactions that would have enhanced economic welfare.  (The reality of enforcement error cost, and the possibility of misdiagnosis of post-merger competitive conditions, is not acknowledged by the BDAP.)

Third, a newly created “competition advocate” independent of the existing federal antitrust enforcers would be empowered to publicly recommend investigations, with the enforcers required to justify publicly why they chose not to pursue a particular recommended investigation.  The advocate would ensure that antitrust enforcers are held “accountable,” assure that complaints about “market exploitation and anticompetitive conduct” are heard, and publish data on “concentration and abuses of economic power” with demographic breakdowns.

This third proposal is particularly egregious.  It is at odds with the long tradition of prosecutorial discretion that has been enjoyed by the federal antitrust enforcers (and law enforcers in general).  It would also empower a special interest intervenor to promote the complaints of interest groups that object to efficiency-seeking business conduct, thereby undermining the careful economic and legal analysis that is consistently employed by the expert antitrust agencies.  The references to “concentration” and “economic power” clarify that the “advocate” would have an untrammeled ability to highlight non-economic objections to transactions raised by inefficient competitors, jealous rivals, or self-styled populists who object to excessive “bigness.”  This would strike at the heart of our competitive process, which presumes that private parties will be allowed to fulfill their own goals, free from government micromanagement, absent indications of a clear and well-defined violation of law.  In sum, the “competition advocate” is better viewed as a “special interest” advocate empowered to ignore normal legal constraints and unjustifiably interfere in business transactions.  If empowered to operate freely, such an advocate (better viewed as an albatross) would undoubtedly chill a wide variety of business arrangements, to the detriment of consumers and economic innovation.

Finally, the BDAP refers to a variety of ills that are said to affect specific named industries, in particular airlines, cable/telecom, beer, food prices, and eyeglasses.  Airlines are subject to a variety of capacity limitations (limitations on landing slots and the size/number of airports) and regulatory constraints (prohibitions on foreign entry or investment) that may affect competitive conditions, but airlines mergers are closely reviewed by the Justice Department.  Cable and telecom companies face a variety of federal, state, and local regulations, and their mergers also are closely scrutinized.  The BDAP’s reference to the proposed AT&T/Time Warner merger ignores the potential efficiencies of this “vertical” arrangement involving complementary assets (see my coauthored commentary here), and resorts to unsupported claims about wrongful “discrimination” by “behemoths” – issues that in any event are examined in antitrust merger reviews.  Unsupported references to harm to competition and consumer choice are thrown out in the references to beer and agrochemical mergers, which also receive close economically-focused merger scrutiny under existing law.  Concerns raised about the price of eyeglasses ignore the role of potentially anticompetitive regulation – that is, bad government – in harming consumer welfare in this sector.  In short, the alleged competitive “problems” the BDAP raises with respect to particular industries are no more compelling than the rest of its analysis.  The Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission are hard at work applying sound economics to these sectors.  They should be left to do their jobs, and the BDAP’s industry-specific commentary (sadly, like the rest of its commentary) should be accorded no weight.

Conclusion

Congressional Democrats would be well-advised to ditch their efforts to resurrect the counterproductive antitrust policy from days of yore, and instead focus on real economic problems, such as excessive and inappropriate government regulation, as well as weak protection for U.S. intellectual property rights, here and abroad (see here, for example).  Such a change in emphasis would redound to the benefit of American consumers and producers.

 

 

On July 10, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced a new rule to ban financial service providers, such as banks or credit card companies, from using mandatory arbitration clauses to deny consumers the opportunity to participate in a class action (“Arbitration Rule”).  The Arbitration Rule’s summary explains:

First, the final rule prohibits covered providers of certain consumer financial products and services from using an agreement with a consumer that provides for arbitration of any future dispute between the parties to bar the consumer from filing or participating in a class action concerning the covered consumer financial product or service. Second, the final rule requires covered providers that are involved in an arbitration pursuant to a pre-dispute arbitration agreement to submit specified arbitral records to the Bureau and also to submit specified court records. The Bureau is also adopting official interpretations to the regulation.

The Arbitration Rule’s effective date is 60 days following its publication in the Federal Register (which is imminent), and it applies to contracts entered into more than 180 days after that.

Cutting through the hyperbole that the Arbitration Rule protects consumers from “unfairness” that would deny them “their day in court,” this Rule is in fact highly anti-consumer and harmful to innovation.  As Competitive Enterprise Senior Fellow John Berlau put it, in promulgating this Rule, “[t]he CFPB has disregarded vast data showing that arbitration more often compensates consumers for damages faster and grants them larger awards than do class action lawsuits. This regulation could have particularly harmful effects on FinTech innovations, such as peer-to-peer lending.”  Moreover, in a coauthored paper, Professors Jason Johnston of the University of Virginia Law School and Todd Zywicki of the Scalia Law School debunked a CFPB study that sought to justify the agency’s plans to issue the Arbitration Rule.  They concluded:

The CFPB’s [own] findings show that arbitration is relatively fair and successful at resolving a range of disputes between consumers and providers of consumer financial products, and that regulatory efforts to limit the use of arbitration will likely leave consumers worse off . . . .  Moreover, owing to flaws in the report’s design and a lack of information, the report should not be used as the basis for any legislative or regulatory proposal to limit the use of consumer arbitration.    

Unfortunately, the Arbitration Rule is just the latest of many costly regulatory outrages perpetrated by the CFPB, an unaccountable bureaucracy that offends the Constitution’s separation of powers and should be eliminated by Congress, as I explained in a 2016 Heritage Foundation report.

Legislative elimination of an agency, however, takes time.  Fortunately, in the near term, Congress can apply the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to prevent the Arbitration Rule from taking effect, and to block the CFPB from passing rules similar to it in the future.

As Heritage Senior Legal Fellow Paul Larkin has explained:

[The CRA is] Congress’s most recent effort to trim the excesses of the modern administrative state.  The act requires the executive branch to report every “rule” — a term that includes not only the regulations an agency promulgates, but also its interpretations of the agency’s governing laws — to the Senate and House of Representatives so that each chamber can schedule an up-or-down vote on the rule under the statute’s fast-track procedure.  The act was designed to enable Congress expeditiously to overturn agency regulations by avoiding the delays occasioned by the Senate’s filibuster rules and practices while also satisfying the [U.S. Constitution’s] Article I Bicameralism and Presentment requirements, which force the Congress and President to collaborate to enact, revise, or repeal a law.  Under the CRA, a joint resolution of disapproval signed into law by the President invalidates the rule and bars an agency from thereafter adopting any substantially similar rule absent a new act of Congress.

Although the CRA was almost never invoked before 2017, in recent months it has been used extensively as a tool by Congress and the Trump Administration to roll back specific manifestations Obama Administration regulatory overreach (for example, see here and here).

Application of the CRA to expunge the Arbitration Rule (and any future variations on it) would benefit consumers, financial services innovation, and the overall economy.  Senator Tom Cotton has already gotten the ball rolling to repeal that Rule.  Let us hope that Congress follows his lead and acts promptly.

Today I published an article in The Daily Signal bemoaning the European Commission’s June 27 decision to fine Google $2.7 billion for engaging in procompetitive, consumer welfare-enhancing conduct.  The article is reproduced below (internal hyperlinks omitted), in italics:

On June 27, the European Commission—Europe’s antitrust enforcer—fined Google over $2.7 billion for a supposed violation of European antitrust law that bestowed benefits, not harm, on consumers.

And that’s just for starters. The commission is vigorously pursuing other antitrust investigations of Google that could lead to the imposition of billions of dollars in additional fines by European bureaucrats.

The legal outlook for Google is cloudy at best. Although the commission’s decisions can be appealed to European courts, European Commission bureaucrats have a generally good track record in winning before those tribunals.

But the problem is even bigger than that.

Recently, questionable antitrust probes have grown like topsy around the world, many of them aimed at America’s most creative high-tech firms. Beneficial innovations have become legal nightmares—good for defense lawyers, but bad for free market competition and the health of the American economy.

What great crime did Google commit to merit the huge European Commission fine?

The commission claims that Google favored its own comparison shopping service over others in displaying Google search results.

Never mind that consumers apparently like the shopping-related service links they find on Google (after all, they keep using its search engine in droves), or can patronize any other search engine or specialized comparison shopping service that can be found with a few clicks of the mouse.

This is akin to saying that Kroger or Walmart harm competition when they give favorable shelf space displays to their house brands. That’s ridiculous.

Somehow, such “favoritism” does not prevent consumers from flocking to those successful chains, or patronizing their competitors if they so choose. It is the essence of vigorous free market rivalry.  

The commission’s theory of anticompetitive behavior doesn’t hold water, as I explained in an earlier article. The Federal Trade Commission investigated Google’s search engine practices several years ago and found no evidence that alleged Google search engine display bias harmed consumers.

To the contrary, as former FTC Commissioner (and leading antitrust expert) Josh Wright has pointed out, and as the FTC found:

Google likely benefited consumers by prominently displaying its vertical content on its search results page. The Commission reached this conclusion based upon, among other things, analyses of actual consumer behavior—so-called ‘click through’ data—which showed how consumers reacted to Google’s promotion of its vertical properties.

In short, Google’s search policies benefit consumers. Antitrust is properly concerned with challenging business practices that harm consumer welfare and the overall competitive process, not with propping up particular competitors.

Absent a showing of actual harm to consumers, government antitrust cops—whether in Europe, the U.S., or elsewhere—should butt out.

Unfortunately, the European Commission shows no sign of heeding this commonsense advice. The Europeans have also charged Google with antitrust violations—with multibillion-dollar fines in the offing—based on the company’s promotion of its Android mobile operating service and its AdSense advertising service.

(That’s not all—other European Commission Google inquiries are also pending.)

As in the shopping services case, these investigations appear to be woefully short on evidence of harm to competition and consumer welfare.

The bigger question raised by the Google matters is the ability of any highly successful individual competitor to efficiently promote and favor its own offerings—something that has long been understood by American enforcers to be part and parcel of free-market competition.

As law Professor Michael Carrier points outs, any changes the EU forces on Google’s business model “could eventually apply to any way that Amazon, Facebook or anyone else offers to search for products or services.”

This is troublesome. Successful American information-age companies have already run afoul of the commission’s regulatory cops.

Microsoft and Intel absorbed multibillion-dollar European Commission antitrust fines in recent years, based on other theories of competitive harm. Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, among others, have faced European probes of their competitive practices and “privacy policies”—the terms under which they use or share sensitive information from consumers.

Often, these probes have been supported by less successful rivals who would rather rely on government intervention than competition on the merits.

Of course, being large and innovative is not a legal shield. Market-leading companies merit being investigated for actions that are truly harmful. The law applies equally to everyone.

But antitrust probes of efficient practices that confer great benefits on consumers (think how much the Google search engine makes it easier and cheaper to buy desired products and services and obtain useful information), based merely on the theory that some rivals may lose business, do not advance the free market. They retard it.

Who loses when zealous bureaucrats target efficient business practices by large, highly successful firms, as in the case of the European Commission’s Google probes and related investigations? The general public.

“Platform firms” like Google and Amazon that bring together consumers and other businesses will invest less in improving their search engines and other consumer-friendly features, for fear of being accused of undermining less successful competitors.

As a result, the supply of beneficial innovations will slow, and consumers will be less well off.

What’s more, competition will weaken, as the incentive to innovate to compete effectively with market leaders will be reduced. Regulation and government favor will substitute for welfare-enhancing improvement in goods, services, and platform quality. Economic vitality will inevitably be reduced, to the public’s detriment.

Europe is not the only place where American market leaders face unwarranted antitrust challenges.

For example, Qualcomm and InterDigital, U.S. firms that are leaders in smartphone communications technologies that power mobile interconnections, have faced large antitrust fines for, in essence, “charging too much” for licenses to their patented technologies.

South Korea also claimed to impose a “global remedy” that imposed its artificially low royalty rates on all of Qualcomm’s licensing agreements around the world.

(All this is part and parcel of foreign government attacks on American intellectual property—patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets—that cost U.S. innovators hundreds of billions of dollars a year.)

 

A lack of basic procedural fairness in certain foreign antitrust proceedings has also bedeviled American companies, preventing them from being able to defend their conduct. Foreign antitrust has sometimes been perverted into a form of “industrial policy” that discriminates against American companies in favor of domestic businesses.

What can be done to confront these problems?

In 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce convened a group of trade and antitrust experts to examine the problem. In March 2017, the chamber released a report by the experts describing the nature of the problem and making specific recommendations for U.S. government action to deal with it.

Specifically, the experts urged that a White House-led interagency task force be set up to develop a strategy for dealing with unwarranted antitrust attacks on American businesses—including both misapplication of legal rules and violations of due process.

The report also called for the U.S. government to work through existing international institutions and trade negotiations to promote a convergence toward sounder antitrust practices worldwide.

The Trump administration should take heed of the experts’ report and act decisively to combat harmful foreign antitrust distortions. Antitrust policy worldwide should focus on helping the competitive process work more efficiently, not on distorting it by shacking successful innovators.

One more point, not mentioned in the article, merits being stressed.  Although the United States Government cannot control a foreign sovereign’s application of its competition law, it can engage in rhetoric and public advocacy aimed at convincing that sovereign to apply its law in a manner that promotes consumer welfare, competition on the merits, and economic efficiency.  Regrettably, the Obama Administration, particularly in the latter part of its second term, did a miserable job in promoting a facts-based, empirical approach to antitrust enforcement, centered on hard facts, not on mere speculative theories of harm.  In particular, certain political appointees lent lip service or silent acquiescence to inappropriate antitrust attacks on the unilateral exercise of intellectual property rights.  In addition, those senior officials made statements that could have been interpreted as supportive of populist “big is bad” conceptions of antitrust that had been discredited decades ago – through sound scholarship, by U.S. enforcement policies, and in judicial decisions.  The Trump Administration will have an opportunity to correct those errors, and to restore U.S. policy leadership in support of sound, pro-free market antitrust principles.  Let us hope that it does so, and soon.

Last October 26, Heritage scholar James Gattuso and I published an essay in The Daily Signal, explaining that the proposed vertical merger (a merger between firms at different stages of the distribution chain) of AT&T and Time Warner (currently undergoing Justice Department antitrust review) may have the potential to bestow substantial benefits on consumers – and that congressional calls to block it, uninformed by fact-based economic analysis, could prove detrimental to consumer welfare.  We explained:

[E]ven though the proposed union of AT&T and Time Warner is not guaranteed to benefit shareholders or consumers, that is no reason for the government to block it. Absent a strong showing of likely harm to the competitive process (which does not appear to be the case here), the government has no business interfering in corporate acquisitions.  Market forces should be allowed to sort out the welfare-enhancing transactional sheep from the unprofitable goats.  Shareholders are in a position to “vote with their feet” and reward or punish a merged company, based on information generated in the marketplace. 

[M]arket transactors are better placed and better incentivized than bureaucrats to uncover and apply the information needed to yield an efficient allocation of resources.

In short, government meddling in mergers in the absence of likely market failure (and of reason to believe that the government’s actions will yield results superior to those of an imperfect market) is a recipe for a diminution in—not an improvement in—consumer welfare.

Furthermore, by arbitrarily intervening in proposed mergers that are not anti-competitive, government disincentivizes firms from acting boldly to seek out new opportunities to create wealth and enhance the welfare of consumers.

What’s worse, the knowledge that government may intervene in mergers without regard to their likely competitive effects will prompt wasteful expenditures by special interests opposing particular transactions, causing a further diminution in economic welfare.

Unfortunately, the congressional critics of this deal are still out there, louder than ever, and, once again, need to be reminded about the dangers of unwarranted antitrust interventions – and the problem with “big is bad” rhetoric.  Scalia Law School Professor (and former Federal Trade Commissioner) Joshua Wright ably deconstructs the problems with the latest Capitol Hill  criticisms of this proposed merger, set forth in a June 21 letter to the Justice Department from eleven U.S. Senators (including Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, and Bernie Sanders).  As Professor Wright explains in a June 26 article published by The Hill:

Over the past several decades, there has been resounding and bipartisan agreement — amongst mainstream antitrust economists, practitioners, enforcement agencies, and even politicians — that while mergers between vertically aligned companies, like AT&T and Time Warner, can in rare circumstances harm competition, they usually make consumers better off. The opposition letter is a call to disrupt that consensus with a “new” view that vertical mergers are presumptively a bad deal for consumers and violate the antitrust laws.

The call for an antitrust revolution with respect to vertical mergers should not go unanswered. Revolution actually overstates things. The “new” antitrust is really a thinly veiled attempt to return to the antitrust approach of the 1960s where everything “big” was bad and virtually all deals, vertical ones included, violated the antitrust laws. That approach gained traction in part because it is easy to develop supporting rhetoric that is inflammatory and easily digestible. . . .

[However,] [a]s a matter of fact, the overwhelming weight of economic analysis and empirical evidence serves as a much-needed dose of cold water for the fiery rhetoric in the opposition letter and the commonly held intuition that all mergers between big firms make consumers worse off. . . .

[C]onsider the conclusion of a widely cited summary of dozens of studies authored by Francine LaFontaine and Margaret Slade, two very well respected industrial organization economists (one who served as director of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s bureau of economics during the Obama administration). It found that “consumers are often worse off when governments require vertical separation in markets where firms would have chosen otherwise.” Or consider the conclusion of four former enforcement agency economists reviewing the same body of evidence that “there is a paucity of support for the proposition that vertical restraints [or] vertical integration are likely to harm consumers.”

This evidence by no means suggests vertical mergers are incapable of harming consumers or violating the antitrust laws. The data do suggest an evidence-based antitrust enforcement approach aimed at protecting consumers will not presume that they are harmful without careful, rigorous, and objective analysis. Antitrust analysis is — or at least should be — a fact-specific exercise. Weighing concrete economic evidence is critical when assessing mergers, particularly when assessing vertical mergers where procompetitive virtues are almost always present. . . .

The economic and legal framework for analyzing vertical mergers is well understood by the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division and its staff of expert lawyers and economists. The antitrust division has not hesitated to determine an appropriate remedy in the rare instance where a vertical merger has been found likely to harm competition. The [Senators’] opposition letter is correct that a careful and rigorous analysis of the proposed acquisition is called for — as is the case with all mergers. That review process should, however, be guided by careful and objective analysis and not the fiery political rhetoric [of the Senators’ letter].

Under the leadership of soon-to-be U.S. Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, an experienced antitrust lawyer and antitrust enforcement agency veteran, the Justice Department antitrust division staff will be empowered to conduct precisely that type of analysis and reach a decision that best protects competition and consumers.

Professor Wright’s excellent essay merits being read in full.

  1. Background: The Murr v. Wisconsin Case

On June 23, in a 5-3 decision by Justice Anthony Kennedy (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined; Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld  the Wisconsin State Court of Appeals’ ruling that two waterfront lots should be treated as a single unit in a “regulatory takings” case.  The Murrs are siblings who inherited two adjacent waterfront properties from their parents, and they wanted to sell one of the lots and develop the other.  Unfortunately for the Murrs, the lots had been merged under local zoning regulations, and the local county board of assessments denied the Murrs’ request for a zoning variance to allow their plan to proceed.

The Murrs challenged this in state court, arguing that the state had effectively taken their second property by depriving them of practically all use without paying just compensation, as required by the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.  Affirming a lower state court, the Wisconsin Appeals Court held that the takings analysis properly focused on the two lots together and that, using that framework, the merger regulations did not effectuate a taking.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted the Murrs’ writ of certiorari.  The Supreme Court found that in determining what the relevant unit of property is, courts must ask whether the owner would have a reasonable expectation to believe the property would be treated as a single or separate units.  The Court held that in regulatory takings assessments courts must give substantial weight to how state and local law treat the property, evaluate the property’s physical characteristics, and assess the property’s value under the challenged regulation.  The majority concluded that with regard to the Murrs’ property, there was a valid merger under state law, the terrain and shape of the lots made it clear that the merged lot’s use might be limited, and the second lot brought prospective value to the first. Thus, the lots should be treated as one parcel and they did not suffer a compensable taking, since the Murrs were not deprived of all economically beneficial use of the property.

Chief Justice John Roberts dissented (joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito), noting that the Takings Clause protects private property rights “as state law created and defines them” and the majority’s “malleable definition of ‘private property’…undermines that protection.”  Thus, “[s]tate law defines the boundaries of distinct parcels of land, and those boundaries should determine the ‘private property’ at issue in regulatory takings cases.  Whether a regulation effects a taking of that property is a separate question, one in which common ownership of adjacent property may be taken into account.”

The always thoughtful Justice Thomas penned a separate dissent, suggesting that the Court should reconsider its regulatory takings jurisprudence to see “whether it can be grounded in the original public meaning” of the relevant constitutional provisions.

  1. The Supreme Court Should Reject the Confusing Dichotomy Between Physical and Regulatory Takings and Apply a Simpler Uniform Standard, One that Better Protects the Property Interests Safeguarded by the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause

Unfortunately, far from clarifying regulatory takings analysis, the Murr decision further muddies the doctrinal waters in this area.  Justice Kennedy’s majority decision creates a new inherently ambiguous balancing test that gives substantial leeway to localities to adjust regulatory demarcations and property line divisions without paying compensation to harmed property owners.

Although the three-Justice dissent sets forth a more full-throated paean to property rights, it does little to clarify how to determine when a regulatory taking occurs.  Instead, it approvingly cites prior less than helpful Supreme Court pronouncements on the topic:

Governments can infringe private property interests for public use not only through   [direct] appropriations, but through regulations as well. . . .  Our regulatory takings decisions . . .  have recognized that, “while property may be regulated to a certain extent, if regulation goes too far it will be recognized as a taking.”  This rule strikes a balance between property owners’ rights and the government’s authority to advance the common good. Owners can rest assured that they will be compensated for particularly onerous regulatory actions, while governments maintain the freedom to adjust the benefits and burdens of property ownership without incurring crippling costs from each alteration. . . .  For the vast array of regulations that [do not deny all economically beneficial or productive use of land and thus automatically constitute a taking,] . . . a flexible approach is more fitting.  The factors to consider are wide ranging, and include the economic impact of the regulation, the owner’s investment-backed expectations, and the character of the government action.  The ultimate question is whether the government’s imposition on a property has forced the owner “to bear public burdens which, in all fairness and justice, should be borne by the public as a whole.” 

Such a weighing of “wide-ranging factors” to determine whether or not a taking has occurred is inherently subjective and prone to manipulation by local authorities.  It enables them to marshal a list of Court-approved phrases to explain why a regulation does not go “too far” and take property – even though it may substantially destroy property value.

What is missing from the opinions in Murr is the recognition that any substantial net reduction in the value of a piece of property (subdivided or not) takes a certain property interest.  It is black letter law that there is not a single undivided property right inhering in an item of property, but, rather, multiple property interests – a “bundle of sticks” – that can be taken in whole or in part.  Under current Supreme Court jurisprudence, if the government directly seizes (or physically occupies) a particular stick, compensation is owed for the reduction in overall property value stemming from that stick’s loss.  This is the case of a physical “per se” taking.  But if the government instead enacts a rule preventing that stick from being sold or embellished by the bundle’s owner (think of the Murrs’ plan to sell one plot and develop the other), the owner likewise suffers similar reduced overall property value due to restrictions on the stick.  Under existing Supreme Court case law, however, the loss in value in the second case, unlike the first case, may well not be compensable, because the owner has not been deprived “of all beneficial use” of the overall property.  Supreme Court case law indicates that a taking may exist in the second case, depending upon a regulation’s impact, its interference in investment-backed expectations, and the character of its actions.  As a practical matter, this infelicitous, indeterminate balancing test very seldom results in a taking being found.  As a result, government is incentivized to invade property rights by using regulations, rather than physical appropriations, thereby undermining the Taking Clause’s requirement that “private property [not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

There is a far better way to deal with the problem of government regulatory intrusions on private property rights, one that recognizes that regulatory deprivation of any stick in the bundle should be compensable.  Professor Richard Epstein, distinguished property law scholar extraordinaire, points the way in his very recent article posted at the NYU Journal of Law and Liberty blog 18 days before Murr was handed down.  While Professor Epstein’s brilliant essay merits a close read, his key points are as follows:

I have used the occasion of yet another takings case before the Supreme Court, Murr v. Wisconsin, to comment on the structure of the takings law as it is, and as it ought to be.  On the former count, it is quite clear that the entire structure of the modern law of physical and regulatory takings tends to fixate on the ratio of the value of property rights taken to the value of the full bundle of rights before the regulation was put into place.  But there is no explanation as to why this ratio has any significance in light of the standard rule in physical-takings cases that the fair market value of the rights taken affords the correct measure of compensation so long as the taking is for a public use when no police-power justification is available.  Within this peculiar framework, it is a mistake to make the right of compensation for the loss of development rights under the Wisconsin ordinance turn on the technicalities of the chain of title to a particular plot.  This seems a uniquely inappropriate reason to deny compensation for the loss of development rights.

Any analysis of Murr is inherently messy, and it leaves open the endless challenge of reconciling this case with a wide range of other cases that cannot decide whether two contiguous parcels held by different titles can be a collective denominator in takings cases.  [But] . . . the muddle and confusion of the current law is largely obviated by the simple proposition that, prima facie, the more the government takes, the more it pays.  That rule applies to the outright taking of any given parcel of land or to the taking of a divided interest in property. In all of these cases, the shifts in what is taken do not create odd and indefensible discontinuities, but only raise valuation questions as to the size of the loss, taking into account any return benefits that a property owner may receive when the taking is part of some comprehensive scheme. But those issues are routinely encountered in all physical-takings cases. In all instances, police-power justifications, tied closely to the law of nuisance, may be invoked, and in cases of comprehensive regulation, courts must be alert to determine whether the scheme that takes rights away also affords compensation in-kind from the parallel restrictions on others in the scheme. Under this view, the full range of divided interests, be they air rights, mineral rights, liens, covenants, or easements, are fully compensable. The untenable discontinuities under current doctrine disappear.

Let us hope that in the future, the Supreme Court will take to heart Justice Thomas’s recommendation that the Court return to first principles, and, in so doing, seriously consider the economically and jurisprudentially sophisticated analysis adumbrated in Professor Epstein’s inspired essay.                  

  1. Background

On June 19, in Matal v. Tam, the U.S. Supreme Court (Justice Gorsuch did not participate in the case) affirmed the Federal Circuit’s ruling that the Lanham Act’s “disparagement clause” is unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s free speech clause.  The Patent and Trademark Office denied the Slants’ (an Asian rock group) federal trademark registration, relying on the Lanham Act’s prohibition on trademarks that “which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”  The Court held that trademarks are not government speech, pointing out that the government “does not dream up these marks.”  With the exception of marks scrutinized under the disparagement clause, trademarks are not reviewed for compliance with government policies.  Writing for the Court, Justice Samuel Alito (joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justice Stephen Breyer) found unpersuasive the government’s argument that trademarks are analogous to subsidized speech.  The Alito opinion also determined that it is unnecessary to determine whether trademarks are commercial speech (subject to lesser scrutiny), because the disparagement clause cannot survive the Supreme Court’s test for such speech enunciated in Central Hudson Gas & Electric Company (1980).  Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, concurred in the judgment.  The Kennedy opinion agreed that the disparagement clause constitutes viewpoint discrimination because it reflects the government’s disapproval of certain speech, and that heightened scrutiny should apply, whether or not trademarks are commercial speech.

The Tam decision continues the trend of Supreme Court cases extending First Amendment protection for offensive speech.  Perhaps less likely to be noted, however, is that this decision also promotes free market principles by enhancing the effectiveness of legal protection for a key intellectual property right.  To understand this point, a brief primer on the law and economics of federal trademark protection is in order.

  1. The Law and Economics of Federal Trademark Protection in a Nutshell

A trademark (called a service mark in the case of a service) is an intellectual property right that identifies the source of a particular producer’s goods or services.  Trademarks reduce transactions costs by enabling consumers more easily to identify and patronize particular goods and services whose attributes they associate with a trademark.  This enhances market efficiency, by lowering information costs in the market and by encouraging competing firms to develop unique attributes that they can signal to consumers.

By robustly protecting federally-registered trademarks, the federal Lanham Act (see here for Lanham Act trademark infringement remedies) creates strong incentives for each trademark holder to invest in (and promote through advertising and other means) the quality of the trademarked goods or services it produces.  Strong trademark remedies are key because they promote the market-based interest in ensuring trademark holders that their individual property rights will be protected.  As one scholar puts it, “[i]t is generally accepted that [federal trademark] infringement actions protect both the goodwill of mark owners and competition by preventing confusion.”

Shielded by firm legal protection, the trademark holder will tend not to allow the quality of its trademark-protected offerings to slip, knowing that consumers will quickly and easily associate the reduced quality with its mark and stop patronizing the trademarked product or service.  Absent strong trademark protection, however, producers of competing products and services will be tempted to “free ride” by using a competing business’s registered trademark without authorization.  This sharply reduces the original trademark owner’s incentive to invest in and continue to promote quality, because it knows that the free riders will seek to attract customers by using the trademark to sell less costly, lower quality fare.  Quality overall suffers, to the detriment of consumers.  Allowing free riding on distinctive trademarks also (and relatedly) sows confusion as to the identity of sellers and as to the attributes covered by a particular trademark, leading to a weakening of the trademark system’s role as a source identifier and as a spur to attribute-based competition.

In short, federal trademark law protection, embodied in the Lanham Act, enhances free market competitive processes by protecting a trademark’s role in identifying suppliers (reducing transaction costs); incentivizing investment in the enhancement and preservation of product quality; and spurring attribute-based competition.

  1. The Demise of Lanham Act Disparagement Enhances Trademark Rights and Promotes Free Market Principles

The disparagement clause denied federal legal protection to a broad class of trademarks, based merely on the highly subjective determination by federal bureaucrats that the marks in question “disparaged” particular individuals or institutions.  This denial undermined private parties’ incentives to invest in “disparaging” marks, and to compete vigorously by signaling to consumers the existence of novel products and services that they might find appealing.

By “constitutionally expunging” the disparagement clause, the Supreme Court in Tam has opened the gateway to more robust competition by spurring the vigorous investment in and promotion of a larger number of marks.  Consumers in the marketplace, not bureaucrats, will decide whether the products or services identified by particular marks are “problematic” and therefore not worthy of patronage.  In other words, by enhancing legal protection for a wider variety of trademarks, the Tam decision has paved the way for the expansion of mutually-beneficial marketplace transactions, to the benefit of consumers and producers alike.

To conclude, in promoting First Amendment free speech interests, the Tam Court also gave a shot in the arm to welfare-enhancing competition in markets for goods and services.  It turns out that competition in the marketplace of ideas goes hand-in-hand with competition in the commercial marketplace.

Too much ink has been spilled in an attempt to gin up antitrust controversies regarding efforts by holders of “standard essential patents” (SEPs, patents covering technologies that are adopted as part of technical standards relied upon by manufacturers) to obtain reasonable returns to their property. Antitrust theories typically revolve around claims that SEP owners engage in monopolistic “hold-up” when they threaten injunctions or seek “excessive” royalties (or other “improperly onerous” terms) from potential licensees in patent licensing negotiations, in violation of pledges (sometimes imposed by standard-setting organizations) to license on “fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory” (FRAND) terms. As Professors Joshua Wright and Douglas Ginsburg, among others, have explained, contract law, tort law, and patent law are far better placed to handle “FRAND-related” SEP disputes than antitrust law. Adding antitrust to the litigation mix generates unnecessary costs and inefficiently devalues legitimate private property rights.

Concerns by antitrust mavens that other areas of law are insufficient to cope adequately with SEP-FRAND disputes are misplaced. A fascinating draft law review article by Koren Wrong-Ervin, Director of the Scalia Law School’s Global Antitrust Institute, and Anne Layne-Farrar, Vice President of Charles River Associates, does an admirable job of summarizing key decisions by U.S. and foreign courts involved in determining FRAND rates in SEP litigation, and in highlighting key economic concepts underlying these holdings. As explained in the article’s abstract:

In the last several years, courts around the world, including in China, the European Union, India, and the United States, have ruled on appropriate methodologies for calculating either a reasonable royalty rate or reasonable royalty damages on standard-essential patents (SEPs) upon which a patent holder has made an assurance to license on fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms. Included in these decisions are determinations about patent holdup, licensee holdout, the seeking of injunctive relief, royalty stacking, the incremental value rule, reliance on comparable licenses, the appropriate revenue base for royalty calculations, and the use of worldwide portfolio licensing. This article provides an economic and comparative analysis of the case law to date, including the landmark 2013 FRAND-royalty determination issued by the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court (and affirmed by the Guangdong Province High People’s Court) in Huawei v. InterDigital; numerous U.S. district court decisions; recent seminal decisions from the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Ericsson v. D-Link and CISCO v. CSIRO; the six recent decisions involving Ericsson issued by the Delhi High Court; the European Court of Justice decision in Huawei v. ZTE; and numerous post- Huawei v. ZTE decisions by European Union member states. While this article focuses on court decisions, discussions of the various agency decisions from around the world are also included throughout.   

To whet the reader’s appetite, key economic policy and factual “takeaways” from the article, which are reflected implicitly in a variety of U.S. and foreign judicial holdings, are as follows:

  • Holdup of any form requires lock-in, i.e., standard-implementing companies with asset-specific investments locked in to the technologies defining the standard or SEP holders locked in to licensing in the context of a standard because of standard-specific research and development (R&D) leading to standard-specific patented technologies.
  • Lock-in is a necessary condition for holdup, but it is not sufficient. For holdup in any guise to actually occur, there also must be an exploitative action taken by the relevant party once lock-in has happened. As a result, the mere fact that a license agreement was signed after a patent was included in a standard is not enough to establish that the patent holder is practicing holdup—there must also be evidence that the SEP holder took advantage of the licensee’s lock-in, for example by charging supra-FRAND royalties that it could not otherwise have charged but for the lock-in.
  • Despite coming after a particular standard is published, the vast majority of SEP licenses are concluded in arm’s length, bilateral negotiations with no allegations of holdup or opportunistic behavior. This follows because market mechanisms impose a number of constraints that militate against acting on the opportunity for holdup.
  • In order to support holdup claims, an expert must establish that the terms and conditions in an SEP licensing agreement generate payments that exceed the value conveyed by the patented technology to the licensor that signed the agreement.
  • The threat of seeking injunctive relief, on its own, cannot lead to holdup unless that threat is both credible and actionable. Indeed, the in terrorem effect of filing for an injunction depends on the likelihood of its being granted. Empirical evidence shows a significant decline in the number of injunctions sought as well as in the actual rate of injunctions granted in the United States following the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in eBay v. MercExchange LLC, which ended the prior nearly automatic granting of injunctions to patentees and instead required courts to apply a traditional four-part equitable test for granting injunctive relief.
  • The Federal Circuit has recognized that an SEP holder’s ability to seek injunctive relief is an important safeguard to help prevent potential licensee holdout, whereby an SEP infringer unilaterally refuses a FRAND royalty or unreasonably delays negotiations to the same effect.
  • Related to the previous point, seeking an injunction against a licensee who is delaying or not negotiating in good faith need not actually result in an injunction. The fact that a court finds a licensee is holding out and/or not engaging in good faith licensing discussions can be enough to spur a license agreement as opposed to a permanent injunction.
  • FRAND rates should reflect the value of the SEPs at issue, so it makes no economic sense to estimate an aggregate rate for a standard by assuming that all SEP holders would charge the same rate as the one being challenged in the current lawsuit.
  • Moreover, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has held, allegations of “royalty stacking” – the allegedly “excessive” aggregate burden of high licensing fees stemming from multiple patents that cover a single product – should be backed by case-specific evidence.
  • Most importantly, when a judicial FRAND assessment is focused on the value that the SEP portfolio at issue has contributed to the standard and products embodying the standard, the resulting rates and terms will necessarily avoid both patent holdup and royalty stacking.

In sum, the Wong-Ervin and Layne-Farrar article highlights economic insights that are reflected in the sounder judicial opinions dealing with the determination of FRAND royalties.  The article points the way toward methodologies that provide SEP holders sufficient returns on their intellectual property to reward innovation and maintain incentives to invest in technologies that enhance the value of standards.  Read it and learn.

  1. Introduction

The International Competition Network (ICN), a “virtual” organization comprised of most of the world’s competition (antitrust) agencies and expert non-governmental advisors (NGAs), held its Sixteenth Annual Conference in Porto, Portugal from May 10-12. (I attended this Conference as an NGA.) Now that the ICN has turned “sweet sixteen,” a stocktaking is appropriate. The ICN can point to some significant accomplishments, but faces major future challenges. After describing those challenges, I advance four recommendations for U.S.-led initiatives to enhance the future effectiveness of the ICN.

  1. ICN Background and Successes

The ICN, whose key objective is to promote “soft convergence” among competition law regimes, has much to celebrate. It has gone from a small core of competition authorities focused on a limited set of issues to a collection of 135 agencies from 122 far-flung jurisdictions, plus a large cadre of NGA lawyers and economists who provide practical and theoretical advice. The ICN’s nature and initiatives are concisely summarized on its website:

The ICN provides competition authorities with a specialized yet informal venue for maintaining regular contacts and addressing practical competition concerns. This allows for a dynamic dialogue that serves to build consensus and convergence towards sound competition policy principles across the global antitrust community.

The ICN is unique as it is the only international body devoted exclusively to competition law enforcement and its members represent national and multinational competition authorities. Members produce work products through their involvement in flexible project-oriented and results-based working groups. Working group members work together largely by Internet, telephone, teleseminars and webinars.

Annual conferences and workshops provide opportunities to discuss working group projects and their implications for enforcement. The ICN does not exercise any rule-making function. Where the ICN reaches consensus on recommendations, or “best practices”, arising from the projects, individual competition authorities decide whether and how to implement the recommendations, through unilateral, bilateral or multilateral arrangements, as appropriate.

The Porto Conference highlighted the extent of the ICN’s influence. Representatives from key international organizations that focus on economic growth and development (and at one time were viewed as ICN “rivals”), including the OECD, the World Bank, and UNCTAD, participated in the Conference. A feature in recent years, the one-day “Pre-ICN” Forum jointly sponsored by the World Bank, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the International Bar Association, this year shared the spotlight with other “sidebar” events (for example, an antitrust symposium cosponsored by UNCTAD and the Japan Fair Trade Commission, an “African Competition Forum,” and a roundtable of former senior officials and academics sponsored by a journal). The Porto Conference formally adopted an impressive array of documents generated over the past year by the ICN’s various Working Groups (the Advocacy, Agency Effectiveness, Cartel, Merger, and Unilateral Conduct Working Groups) (see here and here). This work product focuses on offering practical advice to agencies, rather than theoretical academic speculation. If recent history is in any indication, a substantial portion of this advice will be incorporated within some national laws, and various agencies guidance documents, and strategic plans.

In sum, the ICN is an increasingly influential organization. More importantly, it has, on balance, been a force for the promotion of sound policies on such issues as pre-merger notifications and cartel enforcement – policies that reduce transaction costs for the private sector and tend to improve the quality of antitrust enforcement. It has produced valuable training materials for agencies. Furthermore, the ICN’s Advocacy Working Group, buoyed by a growing amount of academic research (some of it supported by the World Bank), increasingly has highlighted the costs of anticompetitive government laws and regulations, and provided a template for assessing and critiquing regulatory schemes that undermine the competitive process. Most recently, the revised chapter on the “analytical framework for evaluating unilateral exclusionary conduct” issued at the 2017 Porto Conference did a solid job of describing the nature of harm to the competitive process and the need to consider error costs in evaluating such conduct. Other examples of welfare-enhancing ICN proposals abound.

  1. Grounds for Caution Going Forward

Nevertheless, despite its generally good record, one must be cautious in evaluating the ICN’s long-term prospects, for at least five reasons.

First, as the ICN tackles increasingly contentious issues (such as the assessment of vertical restraints, which are part of the 2017-2018 ICN Work Plan, and “dominant” single firm “platforms,” cited specifically by ICN Chairman Andreas Mundt in Porto), the possibility for controversy and difficulty in crafting recommendations rises.

Second, most ICN members have adopted heavily administrative competition law frameworks that draw upon an inquisitorial civil law model, as opposed to the common law adversarial legal system in which independent courts conduct full legal reviews of agency conclusions. Public choice analysis (not to mention casual empiricism and common sense) indicates that as they become established, administrative agencies will have a strong incentive to “do something” in order to expand their authority. Generally speaking, sound economic analysis (bolstered by large staffs of economists) that stresses consumer welfare has been incorporated into U.S. federal antitrust enforcement decisions and federal antitrust jurisprudence – but that is not the case in large parts of the world. As its newer member agencies grow in size and influence, the ICN may be challenged by those authorities to address “novel” practices that stray beyond well-understood competition law categories. As a result, innovative welfare-enhancing business innovations could be given unwarranted scrutiny and thereby discouraged.

Third, as various informed commentators in Porto noted, many competition laws explicitly permit consideration of non-economic welfare-based goals, such as “industrial policy” (including promotion of “national champion” competitors), “fairness,” and general “public policy.” Such ill-defined statutory goals allow competition agencies (and, of course, politicians who may exercise influence over those agencies) to apply competition statutes in an unpredictable manner that has nothing to do with (indeed, may be antithetical to) promotion of a vigorous competitive process and consumer welfare. With the proliferation of international commerce, the costly uncertainty injected into business decision-making by malleable antitrust statutes becomes increasingly significant. The ICN, which issues non-binding recommendations and advice and relies on voluntary interagency cooperation, may have little practical ability to fend off such welfare-inimical politicization of antitrust.

Fourth, for nearly a decade United States antitrust agencies have expressed concern in international forums about lack of due process in competition enforcement. Commendably, in 2015 the ICN did issue guidance regarding “key investigative principles and practices important to effective and fair investigative process”, but this guidance did not address administrative hearings and enforcement actions, which remain particularly serious concerns. The ICN’s ability to drive a “due process improvements” agenda may be inherently limited, due to differences among ICN members’ legal systems and sensitivities regarding the second-guessing of national enforcement norms associated with the concept of “due process.”

Fifth, there is “the elephant outside the room.” One major jurisdiction, China, still has not joined the ICN. Given China’s size, importance in the global economy, and vigorous enforcement of its completion law, China’s “absence from “the table” is a significant limitation on the ICN’s ability to promote economically meaningful global policy convergence. (Since Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” of China, has joined the ICN, one may hope that China itself will consider opting for ICN membership in the not too distant future.)

  1. What Should the U.S. Antitrust Agencies Do?

Despite the notes of caution regarding the ICN’s future initiatives and effectiveness, the ICN will remain for the foreseeable future a useful forum for “nudging” members toward improvements in their competition law systems, particularly in key areas such as cartel enforcement, merger review, and agency effectiveness (internal improvements in agency management may improve the quality of enforcement and advocacy initiatives). Thus, the U.S. federal antitrust agencies, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), should (and undoubtedly will) remain fully engaged with the ICN. DOJ and the FTC not only should remain fully engaged in the ICN’s Working Groups, they should also develop a strategy for minimizing the negative effects of the ICN’s limitations and capitalizing on its strengths. What should such a strategy entail? Four key elements come to mind.

First, the FTC and DOJ should strongly advocate against an ICN focus on expansive theories of liability for unilateral conduct (particularly involving such areas as popular Internet “platforms” (e.g., Google, Facebook, and Amazon, among others) and vertical restraints), not tied to showings of harm to the competitive process. The proliferation of cases based on such theories could chill economically desirable business innovations. In countering such novel and expansive condemnations of unilateral conduct, the U.S. agencies could draw upon the extensive law and economics literature on efficiencies and unilateral conduct in speeches, publications, and presentations to ICN Working Groups. To provide further support for their advocacy, the FTC and DOJ should also consider issuing a new joint statement of unilateral conduct enforcement principles, inspired by the general lines of the 2008 DOJ Report on Single Firm Conduct Under Section 2 of the Sherman Act (regrettably withdrawn by the Obama Administration DOJ in 2009). Relatedly, the FTC and DOJ should advocate the right of intellectual property (IP) holders legitimately to maximize returns on their holdings. The U.S. agencies also should be prepared to argue against novel theories of antitrust liability untethered from traditional concepts of antitrust harm, based on the unilateral exploitation of IP rights (see here, here, here, and here).

Second, the U.S. agencies should promote a special ICN project on decision theory and competition law enforcement (see my Heritage Foundation commentary here), under the aegis of the ICN’s Agency Effectiveness Working Group. A decision-theoretic framework aims to minimize the costs of antitrust administration and enforcement error, in order to promote cost-beneficial enforcement outcomes. ICN guidance on decision theory (which would stress the primacy of empirical analysis and the need for easily administrable rules) hopefully would encourage competition agencies to focus on clearly welfare-inimical practices, and avoid pursuing fanciful new theories of antitrust violations unmoored from robust theories of competitive harm. The FTC and DOJ should also work to inculcate decision theory into the work of the core ICN Cartel and Merger Working Groups (see here).

Third, the U.S. agencies should also encourage the ICN’s Agency Effectiveness Working Group to pursue a comprehensive “due process” initiative, focused on guaranteeing fundamental fairness to parties at all stages of a competition law proceeding.  An emphasis on basic universal notions of fairness would transcend the differences inherent in civil law and common law administrative processes. It would suggest a path forward whereby agencies could agree on the nature of basic rights owed litigants, while still preserving differences among administrative enforcement models. Administrative procedure recommendations developed by the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Section in 2015 (see here) offer a good template for consideration, and 2012 OECD deliberations on fairness and transparency (see here) yield valuable background analysis. Consistent with these materials, the U.S. agencies could stress that due process reforms to protect basic rights would not only improve the quality of competition authority decision-making, it would also enhance economic welfare and encourage firms from around the world to do business in reforming jurisdictions. (As discussed above, due process raises major sensitivities, and thus the push for due process improvements should be viewed as a long-term project that will have to be pursued vigorously and very patiently.)

Fourth, working through the ICN’s Advocacy Working Group, the FTC and DOJ should push to substantially raise the profile of competition advocacy at the ICN. A growing body of economic research reveals the enormous economic gains that could be unlocked within individual countries by the removal of anticompetitive laws and rules, particularly those that create artificial barriers to entry and distort trade (see, for example, here and here). The U.S. agencies should emphasize the negative consequences for poorer consumers, reduced innovation, and foregone national income due to many of these anticompetitive barriers, drawing upon research by World Bank and OECD scholars (see here). (Fortunately, the ICN already works with the World Bank to promote an annual contest that showcases economic “success stories” due to agency advocacy.) The FTC and DOJ should also use the ICN as a forum to recommend that national competition authorities accord competition advocacy aimed at domestic regulatory reform relatively more resources and attention, particularly compared to investigations of vertical restraints and novel unilateral conduct. It should also work within the ICN’s guidance and oversight body, the “Steering Group,” to make far-reaching competition advocacy initiatives a top ICN priority.

  1. Conclusion

The ICN is a worthwhile international organization that stands at a crossroads. Having no permanent bureaucracy (its website is maintained by the Canadian Competition Bureau), and relying in large part on online communications among agency staff and NGAs to carry out its work, the ICN represents a very good investment of scare resources by the U.S. Government. Absent thoughtful guidance, however, there is a danger that it could drift and become less effective at promoting welfare-enhancing competition law improvements around the world. To avert such an outcome, U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies (joined by like-minded ICN members from other jurisdictions) should proactively seek to have the ICN take up new projects that hold out the promise for substantive and process-based improvements in competition policy worldwide, including far-reaching regulatory reform. A positive ICN response to such initiatives would enhance the quality of competition policy. Moreover, it could contribute in no small fashion to increased economic welfare and innovation in those jurisdictions that adopted reforms in response to the ICN’s call. American businesses operating internationally also would benefit from improvements in the global competition climate generated by ICN-incentivized reforms.

 

 

 

The indefatigable (and highly talented) scriveners at the Scalia Law School’s Global Antitrust Institute (GAI) once again have offered a trenchant law and economics assessment that, if followed, would greatly improve a foreign jurisdiction’s competition law guidance. This latest assessment, which is compelling and highly persuasive, is embodied in a May 4 GAI Commentary on the Japan Fair Trade Commission’s (JFTC’s) consultation on its Draft Guidelines Concerning Distribution Systems and Business Practices Under the Antimonopoly Act (Draft Guidelines). In particular, the Commentary highlights four major concerns with the Draft Guidelines’ antitrust analysis dealing with conduct involving multi-sided platforms, resale price maintenance (RPM), refusals to deal, tying, and other vertical restraints. It also offers guidance on the appropriate analysis of network effects in multi-sided platforms. After summarizing these five key points, I offer some concluding observations on the potential benefit for competition policy worldwide offered by the GAI’s commentaries on foreign jurisdictions’ antitrust guidance.

  1. Resale price maintenance. Though the Draft Guidelines appear to apply a “rule of reason” or effects-based approach to most vertical restraints, Part I.3 and Part I, Chapter 1 carve out resale price maintenance (RPM) practices on the ground that they “usually have significant anticompetitive effects and, as a general rule, they tend to impede fair competition.” Given the economic theory and empirical evidence showing that vertical restraints, including RPM, rarely harm competition and often benefit consumers, the Commentary urges the JFTC to reconsider its approach and instead apply a rule of reason or effects-based analysis to all vertical restraints, including RPM, under which restraints are condemned only if any anticompetitive harm they cause outweighs any procompetitive benefits they create.
  2. Effects of vertical restraints. The Draft Guidelines identify two types of effects of vertical non-price restraints, “foreclosures effects” and “price maintenance effects.” The Commentary urges the JFTC to require proof of actual anticompetitive effects for both competition and unfair trade practice violations, just as it requires proof of procompetitive effects. It also recommends that the agency take cognizance only of substantial foreclosure effects, that is, “foreclosure of a sufficient share of distribution so that a manufacturer’s rivals are forced to operate at a significant cost disadvantage for a significant period of time.” The Commentary explains that a “consensus has emerged that a necessary condition for anticompetitive harm arising from allegedly exclusionary agreements is that the contracts foreclose rivals from a share of distribution sufficient to achieve minimum efficient scale.” The Commentary notes that “the critical market share foreclosure rate should depend upon the minimum efficient scale of production. Unless there are very large economies of scale in manufacturing, the minimum foreclosure of distribution necessary for an anticompetitive effect in most cases would be substantially greater than 40 percent. Therefore, 40 percent should be thought of as a useful screening device or ‘safe harbor,’ not an indication that anticompetitive effects are likely to exist above this level.”

The Commentary also strongly urges the JFTC to include an analysis of the counterfactual world, i.e., to identify “the difference between the percentage share of distribution foreclosed by the allegedly exclusionary agreements or conduct and the share of distribution in the absence of such an agreement.” It explains that such an approach to assessing foreclosure isolates any true competitive effect of the allegedly exclusionary agreement from other factors.

The Commentary also recommends that the JFTC explicitly recognize that evidence of new or expanded entry during the period of the alleged abuse can be a strong indication that the restraint at issue did not foreclose competition or have an anticompetitive effect. It stresses that, with respect to price increases, it is important to recognize and consider other factors (including changes in the product and changes in demand) that may explain higher prices.

  1. Unilateral refusals to deal and forced sharing. Part II, Chapter 3 of the Draft Guidelines would impose unfair trade practice liability for unilateral refusals to deal that “tend to make it difficult for the refused competitor to carry on normal business activities.” The Commentary strongly urges the JFTC to reconsider this vague and unclear approach and instead recognize the numerous significant concerns with forced sharing.

For example, while a firm’s competitors may want to use a particular good or technology in their own products, there are few situations, if any, in which access to a particular good is necessary to compete in a market. Indeed, one of the main reasons not to impose liability for unilateral, unconditional refusals to deal is “pragmatic in nature and concerns the limited abilities of competition authorities and courts to decide whether a facility is truly non-replicable or merely a competitive advantage.” For one thing, there are “no reliable economic or evidential techniques for testing whether a facility can be duplicated,” and it is often “difficult to distinguish situations in which customers simply have a strong preference for one facility from situations in which objective considerations render their choice unavoidable.”

Furthermore, the Commentary notes that forced competition based on several firms using the same inputs may actually preserve monopolies by removing the requesting party’s incentive to develop its own inputs. Consumer welfare is not enhanced only by price competition; it may be significantly improved by the development of new products for which there is an unsatisfied demand. If all competitors share the same facilities this will occur much less quickly if at all. In addition, if competitors can anticipate that they will be allowed to share the same facilities and technologies, the incentives to develop new products is diminished. Also, sharing of a monopoly among several competitors does not in itself increase competition unless it leads to improvements in price and output, i.e., nothing is achieved in terms of enhancing consumer welfare. Competition would be improved only if the terms upon which access is offered allow the requesting party to effectively compete with the dominant firm on the relevant downstream market. This raises the issue of whether the dominant firm is entitled to charge a monopoly rate or whether, in addition to granting access, there is a duty to offer terms that allow efficient rivals to make a profit.

  1. Fair and free competition. The Draft JFTC Guidelines refer throughout to the goal of promoting “fair and free competition.” Part I.3 in particular provides that “[i]f a vertical restraint tends to impede fair competition, such restraint is prohibited as an unfair trade practice.” The Commentary urges the JFTC to adopt an effects-based approach similar to that adopted by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in its 2015 Policy Statement on Unfair Methods of Competition. Tying unfairness to antitrust principles ensures the alignment of unfairness with the economic principles underlying competition laws. Enforcement of unfair methods of competition statutes should focus on harm to competition, while taking into account possible efficiencies and business justifications. In short, while unfairness can be a useful tool in reaching conduct that harms competition but is not within the scope of the antitrust laws, it is imperative that unfairness be linked to the fundamental goals of the antitrust laws.
  2. Network effects in multi-sided platforms. With respect to multi-sided platforms in particular, the Commentary urges that the JFTC avoid any presumption that network effects create either market power or barriers to entry. In lieu of such a presumption, the Commentary recommends a fact-specific case-by-case analysis with empirical backing on the presence and effect of any network effects. Network effects occur when the value of a good or service increases as the number of people who use it grows. Network effects are generally beneficial. While there is some dispute over whether and under what conditions they might also raise exclusionary concerns, the Commentary notes that “transactions involving complementary products (indirect network effects) fully internalize the benefits of consuming complementary goods and do not present an exclusionary concern.” The Commentary explains that, “[a]s in all analysis of network effects, the standard assumption that quantity alone determines the strength of the effect is likely mistaken.” Rather, to the extent that advertisers, for example, care about end users, they care about many of their characteristics. An increase in the number of users who are looking only for information and never to purchase goods may be of little value to advertisers. “Assessing network or scale effects is extremely difficult in search engine advertising [for example], and scale may not even correlate with increased value over some ranges of size.”
  3. Concluding thoughts. Implicit in the overall approach of this latest GAI Commentary, and in many other GAI assessments of foreign jurisdictions’ proposed antitrust guidance, is the need for regulatory humility, sound empiricism, and a focus on consumer welfare. Antitrust enforcement policies that blandly accept esoteric theories of anticompetitive behavior and ignore actual economic effects are welfare reducing, not welfare enhancing. The very good analytical work carried out by GAI helps competition authorities keep this reality in mind, and merits close attention.