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An important but unheralded announcement was made on October 10, 2018: The European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) released a draft CEN CENELAC Workshop Agreement (CWA) on the licensing of Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) for 5G/Internet of Things (IoT) applications. The final agreement, due to be published in early 2019, is likely to have significant implications for the development and roll-out of both 5G and IoT applications.

CEN and CENELAC, which along with the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) are the officially recognized standard setting bodies in Europe, are private international non profit organizations with a widespread network consisting of technical experts from industry, public administrations, associations, academia and societal organizations. This first Workshop brought together representatives of the 5G/Internet of Things (IoT) technology user and provider communities to discuss licensing best practices and recommendations for a code of conduct for licensing of SEPs. The aim was to produce a CWA that reflects and balances the needs of both communities.

The final consensus outcome of the Workshop will be published as a CEN-CENELEC Workshop Agreement (CWA). The draft, which is available for public comments, comprises principles and guidelines that prepare a foundation for future licensing of standard essential patents for fifth generation (5G) technologies. The draft also contains a section on Q&A to help aid new implementers and patent holders.

The IoT ecosystem is likely to have over 20 billion interconnected devices by 2020 and represent a market of $17 trillion (about the same as the current GDP of the U.S.). The data collected by one device, such as a smart thermostat that learns what time the consumer is likely to be at home, can be used to increase the performance of another connected device, such as a smart fridge. Cellular technologies are a core component of the IoT ecosystem, alongside applications, devices, software etc., as they provide connectivity within the IoT system. 5G technology, in particular, is expected to play a key role in complex IoT deployments, which will transcend the usage of cellular networks from smart phones to smart home appliances, autonomous vehicles, health care facilities etc. in what has been aptly described as the fourth industrial revolution.

Indeed, the role of 5G to IoT is so significant that the proposed $117 billion takeover bid for U.S. tech giant Qualcomm by Singapore-based Broadcom was blocked by President Trump, citing national security concerns. (A letter sent by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US suggested that Broadcom might starve Qualcomm of investment, preventing it from competing effectively against foreign competitors–implicitly those in China.)

While commercial roll-out of 5G technology has not yet fully begun, several efforts are being made by innovator companies, standard setting bodies and governments to maximize the benefits from such deployment.

The draft CWA Guidelines (hereinafter “the guidelines”) are consistent with some of the recent jurisprudence on SEPs on various issues. While there is relatively less guidance specifically in relation to 5G SEPs, it provides clarifications on several aspects of SEP licensing which will be useful, particularly, the negotiating process and conduct of both parties.

The guidelines contain 6 principles followed by some questions pertaining to SEP licensing. The principles deal with:

  1. The obligation of SEP holders to license the SEPs on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms;
  2. The obligation on both parties to conduct negotiations in good faith;
  3. The obligation of both parties to provide necessary information (subject to confidentiality) to facilitate timely conclusion of the licensing negotiation;
  4. Compensation that is “fair and reasonable” and achieves the right balance between incentives to contribute technology and the cost of accessing that technology;
  5. A non-discriminatory obligation on the SEP holder for similarly situated licensees even though they don’t need to be identical; and
  6. Recourse to a third party FRAND determination either by court or arbitration if the negotiations fail to conclude in a timely manner.

There are 22 questions and answers, as well, which define basic terms and touch on issues such as: what amounts as good faith conduct of negotiating parties, global portfolio licensing, FRAND royalty rates, patent pooling, dispute resolution, injunctions, and other issues relevant to FRAND licensing policy in general.

Below are some significant contributions that the draft report makes on issues such as the supply chain level at which licensing is best done, treatment of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), non disclosure agreements, good faith negotiations and alternative dispute resolution.

Typically in the IoT ecosystem, many technologies will be adopted of which several will be standardized. The guidelines offer help to product and service developers in this regard and suggest that one may need to obtain licenses from SEP owners for product or services incorporating communications technology like 3G UMTS, 4G LTE, Wi-Fi, NB-IoT, 31 Cat-M or video codecs such as H.264. The guidelines, however, clarify that with the deployment of IoT, licenses for several other standards may be needed and developers should be mindful of these complexities when starting out in order to avoid potential infringements.

Notably, the guidelines suggest that in order to simplify licensing, reduce costs for all parties and maintain a level playing field between licensees, SEP holders should license at one level. While this may vary between different industries, for communications technology, the licensing point is often at the end-user equipment level. There has been a fair bit of debate on this issue and the recent order by Judge Koh granting FTC’s partial summary motion deals with some of this.

In the judgment delivered on November 6, Judge Koh relied primarily on the 9th circuit decisions in Microsoft v Motorola (2012 and 2015)  to rule on the core issue of the scope of the FRAND commitments–specifically on the question of whether licensing extends to all levels or is confined to the end device level. The court interpreted the pro- competitive principles behind the non-discrimination requirement to mean that such commitments are “sweeping” and essentially that an SEP holder has to license to anyone willing to offer a FRAND rate globally. It also cited Ericsson v D-Link, where the Federal Circuit held that “compliant devices necessarily infringe certain claims in patents that cover technology incorporated into the standard and so practice of the standard is impossible without licenses to all incorporated SEP technology.”

The guidelines speak about the importance of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in such licensing agreements given that some of the information exchanged between parties during negotiation, such as claim charts etc., may be sensitive and confidential. Therefore, an undue delay in agreeing to an NDA, without well-founded reasons, might be taken as evidence of a lack of good faith in negotiations rendering such a licensee as unwilling.

They also provide quite a boost for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in licensing negotiations by addressing the duty of SEP owners to be mindful of SMEs that may be less experienced and therefore lack information from which to draw assurance that proposed terms are FRAND. The guidelines provide that SEP owners should provide whatever information they can under NDA to help the negotiation process. Equally, the same obligation applies on a licensee who is more experienced in dealing with a SEP owner who is an SME.

There is some clarity on time frames for negotiations and the guidelines provide a maximum time that parties should take to respond to offers and counter offers, which could extend up to several months in complex cases involving hundreds of patents. The guidelines also prescribe conduct of potential licensees on receiving an offer and how to make counter-offers in a timely manner.

Furthermore, the guidelines lay down the various ways in which royalty rates may be structured and clarify that there is no one fixed way in which this may be done. Similarly, they offer myriad ways in which potential licensees may be able to determine for themselves if the rates offered to them are fair and reasonable, such as third party patent landscape reports, public announcements, expert advice etc.

Finally, in the case that a negotiation reaches an impasse, the guidelines endorse an alternative dispute mechanism such as mediation or arbitration for the parties to resolve the issue. Bodies such as International Chamber of Commerce and World Intellectual Property Organization may provide useful platforms in this regard.

Almost 20 years have passed since technology pioneer Kevin Ashton first coined the phrase Internet of Things. While companies are gearing up to participate in the market of IoT, regulation and policy in the IoT world seems far from a predictable framework to follow. There are a lot of guesses about how rules and standards are likely to shape up, with little or no guidance for companies on how to prepare themselves for what faces them very soon. Therefore concrete efforts such as these are rather welcome. The draft guidelines do attempt to offer some much needed clarity and are now open for public comments due by December 13. It will be good to see what the final CWA report on licensing of SEPs for 5G and IoT looks like.

 

Last week, the UK Court of Appeal upheld the findings of the High Court in an important case regarding standard essential patents (SEPs). Of particular significance, the Court of Appeal upheld the finding that the defendant, an implementer of SEPs, could have the sale of its products enjoined in the UK unless it enters into a global licensing deal on terms deemed by the court to be fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND). The case is noteworthy not least because the threat of an injunction of this sort has become increasingly rare in other jurisdictions, arguably resulting in an imbalance in bargaining power between patent holders and implementers.

The case concerned patents held by Unwired Planet (most of which had been purchased from Ericsson) that it had declared to be essential to the operation of various telecommunications standards. Chinese telecom giant Huawei had incorporated these patented technologies in its products but disputed the legitimacy of Unwired Planet’s (UP) patents and refused to license them on the terms that were offered.

By way of a background to the case, in March 2014, UP resorted to suing Huawei, Samsung and Google and claiming an injunction when it found it hard to secure licenses. After the commencement of proceedings, UP made licence offers to the defendants. It made offers in April and July 2014 respectively and during the proceedings, including a worldwide SEP portfolio licence, a UK SEP portfolio licence and per-patent licences for any of the SEPs in suit. The defendants argued that the offers were not FRAND. Huawei and Samsung also contended that the offers were in breach of European competition law. UP  settled with Google. Three technical trials of the patents began and UP was able to show that at least two of the patents sued upon were valid and essential and had been infringed. Subsequently, Samsung secured a settlement (at a rate below the market rate) and the FRAND trial went ahead with just Huawei.

Judge Birss delivered the High Court order on April 5, 2017. He held that UP’s patents were valid and infringed and it did not abuse its dominant position by requesting an injunction. He ordered a FRAND injunction that was stayed pending appeal against the two patents that had been infringed. The injunction was subject to a number of conditions which are applied because the case was dealing with patents subject to a FRAND undertaking. It will cease to have effect if Huawei enters into the FRAND license determined by the Court. He also observed that the parties can return for further determination when such license expires. Furthermore, it was held that there was one set of FRAND terms and that the scope of this FRAND was world wide.

The UK Court of Appeal (the bench consisting of Lord Justice Kitchin, Lord Justice Floyd, Lady Justice Asplin) in handing down a 291 paragraph, 66 page judgment dealing with Huawei’s appeal, upheld Birss’ findings. The centrality of Huawei’s appeal focused on the global nature of the FRAND license and the non-discrimination undertaking of UP’s FRAND commitments. Some significant findings of the Court of Appeal are briefly provided below.

The Court of Appeal in upholding Birss’ decision noted that it was unfair to say that UP is using the threat of an injunction to leverage Huawei into taking a global license, and that Huawei had the option to take the global license or submit to an injunction in the UK. Drawing attention to the potential complexities in a FRAND negotiation, the Court observed:

..The owner of a SEP may still use the threat of an injunction to try to secure the payment of excessive licence fees and so engage in hold-up activities. Conversely, the infringer may refuse to engage constructively or behave unreasonably in the negotiation process and so avoid paying the licence fees to which the SEP owner is properly entitled, a process known as “hold-out”.

Furthermore, Huawei argues that imposition of a global license on terms set by a national court based on a national finding of infringement is wrong in principle. It also states that there is currently an ongoing patent litigation in both Germany and China and that there are some countries where UP holds “no relevant” patents at all.

In response to these contentions, the Court of Appeal has held that it may be highly impractical for a SEP owner to seek to negotiate a license of its patent rights in each country and rejected the submission made by Huawei that the approach adopted by Birss in these proceedings is out of line with the territorial nature of patent litigations. It clarified that Birss did not adjudicate on issues of infringement or validity concerning foreign SEPs and did not usurp the rights of foreign courts. It further observed that such an approach of Birss  is consistent with the Council and the European Economic and Social Committee dated 29 November 2017 (COM (2017) 712 final) (“the November 2017 EU Communication”) which notes in section 2.4:

For products with a global circulation, SEP licences granted on a worldwide basis may contribute to a more efficient approach and therefore can be compatible with FRAND.

The Court of Appeal however disagreed with Birss on the issue that there was only one set of FRAND terms. This view of the bench certainly comes as a relief since it seems to appropriately reflect the practical realities of a FRAND negotiation. The Court held:

Patent licences are complex and, having regard to the commercial priorities of the participating undertakings and the experience and preferences of the individuals involved, may be structured in different ways in terms of, for example, the particular contracting parties, the rights to be included in the licence, the geographical scope of the licence, the products to be licensed, royalty rates and how they are to be assessed, and payment terms. Further, concepts such as fairness and reasonableness do not sit easily with such a rigid approach.

Similarly, on the non- discrimination prong of FRAND, the Court of Appeal agreed with Birss that it was not “hard-edged” and the test is whether such difference in rates distorts competition between the licensees. It also noted that the “hard-edged” interpretation would be “akin to the re-insertion of a “most favoured licensee” clause in the FRAND undertaking” which does not seem to be what the standards body, European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) had in mind when it formulated its policies. The Court also held :

We consider that a non-discrimination rule has the potential to harm the technological development of standards if it has the effect of compelling the SEP owner to accept a level of compensation for the use of its invention which does not reflect the value of the licensed technology.

Finally, the Court of Appeal held that UP did not abuse its dominant position just because it failed to strictly comply with the safe harbor framework laid down by Court of Justice of the European Union in Huawei v. ZTE. The only requirement that must be satisfied before proceedings are commenced by the SEP holder is that the SEP holder give sufficient notice to or consult with the implementer.

The Court of Appeal’s decision offers some significant guidance to the emerging policy debate on FRAND. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the decision is significant particularly for the reason that UP is one of a total of two cases in the last two years, where an injunctive relief has been granted in instances involving standard essential patents. Such reliefs have been rarely granted in years in the first place. The second such instance of a grant of injunction pertains to Huawei v. Samsung where the Shenzhen Court in China held earlier this year that Huawei met the FRAND obligation while Samsung did not (negotiations were dragged on for 6 years). An injunction was granted against Samsung for infringing two of Huawei’s Chinese patents which are counterparts of two U.S. asserted patents (however Judge Orrick of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California enjoined Huawei from enforcing the injunction).

Current jurisprudence on injunctive relief with respect to FRAND encumbered SEPs is that there is no per se ban on these reliefs. However, courts have been very reluctant to actually grant them. While injunctions are statutory remedies, and granted automatically in most cases when a patent is found to be infringed, administrative agencies and courts have held a position that shows that FRAND commitments certainly limit this premise.

Following the eBay decision in the U.S., defendants in infringement claims involving SEPs have argued that permanent injunctions should not be available for FRAND-encumbered SEPs and were upheld in cases such as Apple v. Motorola in 2014 (where Judge Randall Radar also makes a sound case for evidence of a hold out by Apple in his dissenting order). However, in an institutional bargaining framework of FRAND, which is based on a mutuality of considerations, such a recourse is misplaced and likely to inevitably disturb this balance. The current narrative on FRAND that dominates policymaking and jurisprudence is incomplete in its unilateral focus of avoiding the possible problem of a patent hold up in the absence of concrete evidence indicating its probability. In Ericsson v D-Links Judge Davis of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit underscored this point when he observed that “if an accused infringer wants an instruction on patent hold-up and royalty stacking [to be given to the jury], it must provide evidence on the record of patent hold-up and royalty stacking.”

Remedies emanating from a one sided perspective tilt the bargaining dynamic in favour of implementers and if the worst penalty a SEP infringer has to pay is the FRAND royalty it would have otherwise paid beforehand, then a hold out or a reverse hold up by implementers becomes a very profitable strategy. Remedies for patent infringement cannot be ignored because they are also core to the framework for licensing negotiations and ensuring compliance by licensees. A disproportionate reliance on liability rules over property rights is likely to exacerbate the countervailing problem of hold out and detrimentally impact incentives to innovate, ultimately undermining the welfare goals that such enforcement seeks to achieve.

The Court of Appeal has therefore given valuable guidance in its decision when it noted:

Just as implementers need protection, so too do the SEP owners. They are entitled to an appropriate reward for carrying out their research and development activities and for engaging with the standardization process, and they must be able to prevent technology users from free-riding on their innovations. It is therefore important that implementers engage constructively in any FRAND negotiation and, where necessary, agree to submit to the outcome of an appropriate FRAND determination.

Hopefully this order brings with it some balance in FRAND negotiations as well as a shift in the perspective of courts in how they adjudicate on these litigations. It underscores an oft forgotten principle that is core to the FRAND framework- that FRAND is a two-way street, as was observed in the celebrated case of Huawei v. ZTE in 2015.

On Monday, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Qualcomm reportedly requested a 30 day delay to a preliminary ruling in their ongoing dispute over the terms of Qualcomm’s licensing agreements–indicating that they may seek a settlement. The dispute raises important issues regarding the scope of so-called FRAND (“fair reasonable and non-discriminatory”) commitments in the context of standards setting bodies and whether these obligations extend to component level licensing in the absence of an express agreement to do so.

At issue is the FTC’s allegation that Qualcomm has been engaging in “exclusionary conduct” that harms its competitors. Underpinning this allegation is the FTC’s claim that Qualcomm’s voluntary contracts with two American standards bodies imply that Qualcomm is obliged to license on the same terms to rival chip makers. In this post, we examine the allegation and the claim upon which it rests.

The recently requested delay relates to a motion for partial summary judgment filed by the FTC on August 30, 2018–about which more below. But the dispute itself stretches back to January 17, 2017, when the FTC filed for a permanent injunction against Qualcomm Inc. for engaging in unfair methods of competition in violation of Section 5(a) of the FTC Act. FTC’s major claims against Qualcomm were as follows:

  • It has been engaging in “exclusionary conduct”  that taxes its competitors’ baseband processor sales, reduces competitors’ ability and incentives to innovate, and raises the prices to be paid by end consumers for cellphones and tablets.  
  • Qualcomm is causing considerable harm to competition and consumers through its “no license, no chips” policy; its refusal to license to its chipset-maker rivals; and its exclusive deals with Apple.
  • The above practices allow Qualcomm to abuse its dominant position in the supply of CDMA and premium LTE modem chips.
  • Given that Qualcomm has made a commitment to standard setting bodies to license these patents on FRAND terms, such behaviour qualifies as a breach of FRAND.

The complaint was filed on the eve of the new presidential administration, when only three of the five commissioners were in place. Moreover, the Commissioners were not unanimous. Commissioner Ohlhausen delivered a dissenting statement in which she argued:

[T]here is no robust economic evidence of exclusion and anticompetitive effects, either as to the complaint’s core “taxation” theory or to associated allegations like exclusive dealing. Instead the Commission speaks about a possibility that less than supports a vague standalone action under a Section 5 FTC claim.

Qualcomm filed a motion to dismiss on April 3, 2017. This was denied by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The court  found that the FTC has adequately alleged that Qualcomm’s conduct violates § 1 and § 2 of the Sherman Act and that it had entered into exclusive dealing arrangements with Apple. Thus, the court asserted, the FTC has adequately stated a claim under § 5 of the FTCA.

It is important to note that the core of the FTC’s arguments regarding Qualcomm’s abuse of dominant position rests on how it adopts the “no license, no chip” policy and thus breaches its FRAND obligations. However, it falls short of proving how the royalties charged by Qualcomm to OEMs exceeds the FRAND rates actually amounting to a breach, and qualifies as what FTC defines as a “tax” under the price squeeze theory that it puts forth.

(The Court did not go into whether there was a violation of § 5 of the FTC independent of a Sherman Act violation. Had it done so, this would have added more clarity to Section 5 claims, which are increasingly being invoked in antitrust cases even though its scope remains quite amorphous.)

On August 30, the FTC filed a partial summary judgement motion in relation to claims on the applicability of local California contract laws. This would leave antitrust issues to be decided in the subsequent hearing, which is set for January next year.

In a well-reasoned submission, the FTC asserts that Qualcomm is bound by voluntary agreements that it signed with two U.S. based standards development organisations (SDOs):

  1. The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and
  2. The Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS).

These agreements extend to Qualcomm’s standard essential patents (SEPs) on CDMA, UMTS and LTE wireless technologies. Under these contracts, Qualcomm is obligated to license its SEPs to all applicants implementing these standards on FRAND terms.

The FTC asserts that this obligation should be interpreted to extend to Qualcomm’s rival modem chip manufacturers and sellers. It requests the Court to therefore grant a summary judgment since there are no disputed facts on such obligation. It submits that this should “streamline the trial by obviating the need for  extrinsic evidence regarding the meaning of Qualcomm’s commitments on the requirement to license to competitors, to ETSI, a third SDO.”

A review of a heavily redacted filing by FTC and a subsequent response by Qualcomm indicates that questions of fact and law continue to remain as regards Qualcomm’s licensing commitments and their scope. Thus, contrary to the FTC’s assertions, extrinsic evidence is still needed for resolution to some of the questions raised by the parties.

Indeed, the evidence produced by both parties points towards the need for resolution of ambiguities in the contractual agreements that Qualcomm has signed with ATIS and TIA. The scope and purpose of these licensing obligations lie at the core of the motion.

The IP licensing policies of the two SDOs provide for licensing of relevant patents to all applicants who implement these standards on FRAND terms. However, the key issues are whether components such as modem chips can be said to implement standards and whether component level licensing falls within this ambit. Yet, the resolution to these key issues, is unclear.

Qualcomm explains that commitments to ATIS and TIA do not require licenses to be made available for modem chips because modem chips do not implement or practice cellular standards and that standards do not define the operation of modem chips.

In contrast, the complaint by FTC raises the question of whether FRAND commitments extend to licensing at all levels. Different components needed for a device come together to facilitate the adoption and implementation of a standard. However, it does not logically follow that each individual component of the device separately practices or implements that standard even though it contributes to the implementation. While a single component may fully implement a standard, this need not always be the case.

These distinctions are significant from the point of interpreting the scope of the FRAND promise, which is commonly understood to extend to licensing of technologies incorporated in a standard to potential users of the standard. Understanding the meaning of a “user” becomes critical here and Qualcomm’s submission draws attention to this.

An important factor in the determination of a “user” of a particular standard is the extent to which the standard is practiced or implemented therein. Some standards development organisations (SDOs) have addressed this in their policies by clarifying that FRAND obligations extend to those “wholly compliant” or “fully conforming” to the specific standards. Clause 6.1 of the ETSI IPR Policy, clarifies that a patent holder’s obligation to make licenses available is limited to “methods” and “equipments”. It defines an equipment as “a system or device fully conforming to a standard.” And methods as “any method or operation fully conforming to a standard.”

It is noteworthy that the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) Executive Standards Council Appeals Panel in a decision has said that there is no agreement on the definition of the phrase “wholly compliant implementation.”  

Device level licensing is the prevailing industry wide practice by companies like Ericsson, InterDigital, Nokia and others. In November 2017, the European Commission issued guidelines on licensing of SEPs and took a balanced approach on this issue by not prescribing component level licensing in its guidelines.

The former director general of ETSI, Karl Rosenbrock, adopts a contrary view, explaining ETSI’s policy, “allows every company that requests a license to obtain one, regardless of where the prospective licensee is in the chain of production and regardless of whether the prospective licensee is active upstream or downstream.”

Dr. Bertram Huber, a legal expert who personally participated in the drafting of the IPR policy of ETSI, wrote a response to Rosenbrock, in which he explains that ETSI’s IPR policies required licensing obligations for systems “fully conforming” to the standard:

[O]nce a commitment is given to license on FRAND terms, it does not necessarily extend to chipsets and other electronic components of standards-compliant end-devices. He highlights how, in adopting its IPR Policy, ETSI intended to safeguard access to the cellular standards without changing the prevailing industry practice of manufacturers of complete end-devices concluding licenses to the standard essential patents practiced in those end-devices.

Both ATIS and TIA are organizational partners of a collaboration called 3rd Generation Partnership Project along with ETSI and four other SDOs who work on development of cellular technologies. TIA and ATIS are both accredited by ANSI. Therefore, these SDOs are likely to impact one another with the policies each one adopts. In the absence of definitive guidance on interpretation of the IPR policy and contractual terms within the institutional mechanism of ATIS and TIA, at the very least, clarity is needed on the ambit of these policies with respect to component level licensing.

The non-discrimination obligation, which as per FTC, mandates Qualcomm to license to its competitors who manufacture and sell chips, would be limited by the scope of the IPR policy and contractual agreements that bind Qualcomm and depends upon the specific SDO’s policy.  As discussed, the policies of ATIS and TIA are unclear on this.

In conclusion, FTC’s filing does not obviate the need to hear extrinsic evidence on what Qualcomm’s commitments to the ETSI mean. Given the ambiguities in the policies and agreements of ATIS and TIA on whether they include component level licensing or whether the modem chips in their entirety can be said to practice the standard, it would be incorrect to say that there is no genuine dispute of fact (and law) in this instance.

On November 27, the U.S. Supreme Court will turn once again to patent law, hearing cases addressing the constitutionality of Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) “inter partes” review (Oil States Energy v. Greene), and whether PTAB must issue a final written decision as to every claim challenged by the petitioner in an inter partes review (SAS Institute v. Matal).

As the Justices peruse the bench memos and amicus curiae briefs concerning these cases, their minds will, of course, be focused on legal questions of statutory and constitutional interpretation.  Lurking in the background of these and other patent cases, however, is an overarching economic policy issue – have recent statutory changes and case law interpretations weakened U.S. patent protection in a manner that seriously threatens future American economic growth and innovation?  In a recent Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum, I responded in the affirmative to this question, and argued that significant statutory reforms are needed to restore the American patent system to a position of global leadership that is key to U.S. economic prosperity.  (Among other things, I noted severe constitutional problems raised by PTAB’s actions, and urged that Congress consider passing legislation to reform PTAB, if the Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of inter partes review.)

A timely opinion article published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal emphasizes that the decline in American patent protection also has profound negative consequences for American international economic competitiveness.  Journalist David Kline, author of the commentary (“Fear American Complacency, Not China”), succinctly contrasts unfortunate U.S. patent policy developments with the recent strengthening of the Chinese patent system (a matter of high priority to the Chinese Government):

China’s entrepreneurs have been fueled by reforms in recent years that strengthened intellectual property rights—ironic for a country long accused of stealing trade secrets and ignoring IP protections. Today Chinese companies are filing for more patents than American ones. The patent application and examination process has been streamlined, and China has established specialized intellectual property courts and tribunals to adjudicate lawsuits and issue injunctions against infringers. “IP infringers will pay a heavy price,” President Xi Jinping warned this summer. . . .

In the U.S., by contrast, a series of legislative actions and Supreme Court rulings have weakened patent rights, especially for startups. A new way of challenging patents called “inter partes review” results in at least one patent claim being thrown out in roughly 80% of cases, according to an analysis by Adam Mossoff, a law professor at George Mason University. Unsurprisingly, many of these cases were brought by defendants facing patent infringement lawsuits in federal court.

This does not bode well for America’s global competitiveness. The U.S. used to rank first among nations in the strength of its intellectual property rights. But the 2017 edition of the Global IP Index places the U.S. 10th—tied with Hungary.

The Supreme Court may not be able to take judicial notice of this policy reality (although strong purely legal arguments would support a holding that PTAB inter partes review is unconstitutional), but Congress certainly can take legislative notice of it.  Let us hope that Congress acts decisively to strengthen the American patent system – in the interests of a strong, innovative, and internationally competitive American economy.

It’s been six weeks since drug maker Allergan announced that it had assigned to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe the patents on Restasis, an Allergan drug challenged both in IPR proceedings and in Hatch-Waxman proceedings in federal district court.  The unorthodox agreement was intended to shield the patents from IPR proceedings (and thus restrict the challenge to district court) as the Mohawks would seek to dismiss the IPR proceedings based on the tribe’s sovereign immunity.  Although Allergan  suffered a setback last week when the federal court invalidated the Restasis patents and, in dicta, expressed concern about the Allergan/Mohawk arrangement, several other entities are following Allergan’s lead and assigning patents to sovereigns in hopes of avoiding IPR proceedings.

As an example, in August, SRC Labs assigned about 40 computer technology patents to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.  Last week, the tribe, with SRC as co-plaintiff, filed lawsuits against Microsoft and Amazon for infringement of its data processing patents; the assignment of the SRC patents to the tribe could prevent a counter-challenge from Microsoft and Amazon in IPR proceedings.  Similarly, Prowire LLC, who has sued Apple for infringement, has assigned the patent in question to MEC Resources, a company affiliated with three tribes in North Dakota.  And state universities (whom the PTAB considers to be arms of the sovereign states, and thus immune to IPR challenges) are in discussions with lawyers about offering their sovereign immunity to patent owners as a way to shield patents in IPR proceedings.

These arrangements that attempt to avoid the IPR process and force patent challenges into federal courts are no surprise given the current unbalance in the IPR system.  Critical differences exist between IPR proceedings and Hatch-Waxman litigation that have created a significant deviation in patent invalidation rates under the two pathways; compared to district court challenges, patents are twice as likely to be found invalid in IPR challenges.

The PTAB applies a lower standard of proof for invalidity in IPR proceedings than do federal courts in Hatch-Waxman proceedings. In federal court, patents are presumed valid and challengers must prove each patent claim invalid by “clear and convincing evidence.” In IPR proceedings, no such presumption of validity applies and challengers must only prove patent claims invalid by the “preponderance of the evidence.” In addition to the lower burden, it is also easier for challengers to meet the standard of proof in IPR proceedings.  In federal court, patent claims are construed according to their “ordinary and customary meaning” to a person of ordinary skill in the art.  In contrast, the PTAB uses the more lenient “broadest reasonable interpretation” standard; this more lenient standard can result in the PTAB interpreting patent claims as “claiming too much” (using their broader standard), resulting in the invalidation of more patents.

Moreover, whereas patent challengers in district court must establish sufficient Article III standing, IPR proceedings do not have a standing requirement.  This has given rise to “reverse patent trolling,” in which entities that are not litigation targets, or even participants in the same industry, threaten to file an IPR petition challenging the validity of a patent unless the patent holder agrees to specific pre-filing settlement demands.  The lack of a standing requirement has also led to the  exploitation of the IPR process by entities that would never be granted standing in traditional patent litigation—hedge funds betting against a company by filing an IPR challenge in hopes of crashing the stock and profiting from the bet.

Finally, patent owners are often forced into duplicative litigation in both IPR proceedings and federal court litigation, leading to persistent uncertainty about the validity of their patents.  Many patent challengers that are unsuccessful in invalidating a patent in district court may pursue subsequent IPR proceedings challenging the same patent, essentially giving patent challengers “two bites at the apple.”  And if the challenger prevails in the IPR proceedings (which is easier to do given the lower standard of proof and broader claim construction standard), the PTAB’s decision to invalidate a patent can often “undo” a prior district court decision.  Further, although both district court judgments and PTAB decisions are appealable to the Federal Circuit, the court applies a more deferential standard of review to PTAB decisions, increasing the likelihood that they will be upheld compared to the district court decision.

Courts are increasingly recognizing that certain PTAB practices are biased against patent owners, and, in some cases, violations of underlying law.  The U.S. Supreme Court in Cuozzo Speed Technologies v. Lee concluded that the broadest reasonable interpretation claim construction standard in IPR “increases the possibility that the examiner will find the claim too broad (and deny it)” and that the different claim construction standards in PTAB trials and federal court “may produce inconsistent results and cause added confusion.”  However, the Court concluded that only Congress could mandate a different standard.  Earlier this month, in Aqua Products, Inc. v. Matal, the Federal Circuit held that “[d]espite repeated recognition of the importance of the patent owner’s right to amend [patent claims] during IPR proceedings— by Congress, courts, and the PTO alike—patent owners largely have been prevented from amending claims in the context of IPRs.”   And the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Oil States Energy Services v. Greene’s Energy Group, which questions whether IPR proceedings are even constitutional because they extinguish private property rights through a non-Article III forum without a jury. 

As Courts and lawmakers continue to question the legality and wisdom of IPR to review pharmaceutical patents, they should remember that the relationship between drug companies and patients resembles a social contract. Under this social contract, patients have the right to reasonably-priced, innovative drugs and sufficient access to alternative drug choices, while drug companies have the right to earn profits that compensate for the risk inherent in developing new products and to a stable environment that gives the companies the incentive and ability to innovate.  This social contract requires a balancing of prices (not too high to gouge consumers but not too low to insufficiently compensate drug companies), competition law (not so lenient that it ignores anticompetitive behavior that restricts patients’ access to alternative drugs, but not so strict that it prevents companies from intensely competing for profits), and most importantly in the context of IPR, patent law (not so weak that it fails to incentivize innovation and drug development, but not so strong that it enables drug companies to monopolize the market for an unreasonable amount of time).  The unbalanced IPR process threatens this balance by creating significant uncertainty in pharmaceutical intellectual property rights.  Uncertain patent rights will lead to less innovation in the pharmaceutical industry because drug companies will not spend the billions of dollars it typically costs to bring a new drug to market when they cannot be certain if the patents for that drug can withstand IPR proceedings that are clearly stacked against them.  Indeed, last week former Federal Circuit Chief Judge Paul Redmond Michel acknowledged that IPR has contributed to “hobbling” our nation’s patent system, “discourag[ing] investment, R&D and commercialization.” And if IPR causes drug innovation to decline, a significant body of research predicts that consumers’ health outcomes will suffer as a result.

In her distinguished tenure as a Commissioner and as Acting Chairman of the FTC, Maureen Ohlhausen has done an outstanding job in explaining the tie between robust patent protection and economic growth and innovation (see, for example, her Harvard Journal of Law and Technology article, here).  Her latest public pronouncement on this topic, an October 13 speech entitled “Strong Patent Rights, Strong Economy,” also makes a highly valuable contribution to the patent policy debate.  Ohlhausen’s speech centers on two key points:  “First, strong patent rights are crucial to economic success.  And, second, economically grounded analysis will reveal the right path through thickets of IP [intellectual property] skepticism.”  Ohlhausen concludes with a reaffirmation of the importance of having the United States lead by example on the world stage in defending strong patent rights:

Patents have been at the heart of US innovation since the founding of our country, and respect for patent rights is fundamental to advance innovation.  The United States is more technologically innovative than any other country in the world.  This reality reflects, in part, the property rights that the United States government grants to inventors.  Still, foreign counterparts take or allow the taking of American proprietary technologies without due payment.  For example, emerging competition regimes view “unfairly high royalties” as illegal under antitrust law.  The FTC’s recent policy work offers an important counterweight to this approach, illustrating the important role that patents play in promoting innovation and benefiting consumers.     

In closing, while we may live in an age of patent skepticism, there is hope. Criticism of IP rights frequently does not hold up upon closer examination. Rather, empirical research favors the close tie between strong IP rights and R&D.  This is not to say that changes to the patent system are always unwarranted.  Rather, the key to addressing the U.S. patent system lies in incremental adjustment where necessary based on a firm empirical foundation.  The U.S. economy stands as a shining reminder of everything that American innovation policy has achieved – and intellectual property rights, and patents, are the important cornerstones of those achievements.

Ohlhausen’s remarks are, as always, thoughtful and well worth studying.

Last Friday, drug maker Allergan and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe announced that they had reached an agreement under which Allergan assigned the patents on its top-selling drug Restasis to the tribe and, in return, Allergan was given the exclusive license on the Restasis patents so that it can continue producing and distributing the drug.  Allergan agreed to pay $13.75 million to the tribe for the deal, and up to $15 million annually in royalties as long as the patents remain valid.

Why would a large drug maker assign the patents on a leading drug to a sovereign Indian nation?  This unorthodox agreement may actually be a brilliant strategy that enables patent owners to avoid the unbalanced inter partes review (IPR) process.  The validity of the Restasis patents is currently being challenged both in IPR proceedings before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) and in federal district court in Texas.  However, the Allergan-Mohawk deal may lead to the dismissal of the IPR proceedings as, under the terms of the deal, the Mohawks will file a motion to dismiss the IPR proceedings based on the tribe’s sovereign immunity.  Earlier this year, in Covidien v. University of Florida Research Foundation, the PTAB determined that sovereign immunity shields state universities holding patents from IPR proceedings, and the same reasoning should certainly apply to sovereign Indian nations.

I’ve published a previous article explaining why pharmaceutical companies have legitimate reasons to avoid IPR proceedings–critical differences between district court litigation and IPR proceedings jeopardize the delicate balance Hatch-Waxman sought to achieve between patent owners and patent challengers. In addition to forcing patent owners into duplicative litigation in district courts and the PTAB, depriving them of the ability to achieve finality in one proceeding, the PTAB also applies a lower standard of proof for invalidity than do district courts in Hatch-Waxman litigation.  It is also easier to meet the standard of proof in a PTAB trial because of a more lenient claim construction standard.  Moreover, on appeal, PTAB decisions in IPR proceedings are given more deference than lower district court decisions.  Finally, while patent challengers in district court must establish sufficient Article III standing, IPR proceedings do not have a standing requirement.  This has led to the exploitation of the IPR process by entities that would never be granted standing in traditional patent litigation—hedge funds betting against a company by filing an IPR challenge in hopes of crashing the stock and profiting from the bet.

The differences between district court litigation and IPR proceedings have created a significant deviation in patent invalidation rates under the two pathways; compared to district court challenges, patents are twice as likely to be found invalid in IPR challenges.  Although the U.S. Supreme Court in Cuozzo Speed Technologies v. Lee concluded that the anti-patentee claim construction standard in IPR “increases the possibility that the examiner will find the claim too broad (and deny it)”, the Court concluded that only Congress could mandate a different standard.  So far, Congress has done nothing to reduce the disparities between IPR proceedings and Hatch-Waxman litigation. But, while we wait, the high patent invalidation rate in IPR proceedings creates significant uncertainty for patent owners’ intellectual property rights.   Uncertain patent rights, in turn, lead to less innovation in the pharmaceutical industry.  Put simply, drug companies will not spend the billions of dollars it typically costs to bring a new drug to market when they can’t be certain if the patents for that drug can withstand IPR proceedings that are clearly stacked against them (for an excellent discussion of how the PTAB threatens innovation, see Alden Abbot’s recent TOTM post).  Thus, deals between brand companies and sovereigns, such as Indian nations, that insulate patents from IPR proceedings should improve the certainty around intellectual property rights and protect drug innovation.

Yet, the response to the Allergan-Mohawk deal among some scholars and generic drug companies has been one of panic and speculative doom.  Critics have questioned the deal largely on the grounds that, in addition to insulating Restasis from IPR proceedings, tribal sovereignty might also shield the patents in standard Hatch-Waxman district court litigation.  If this were true and brand companies began to routinely house their patents with sovereign Indian nations, then the venues in which generic companies could challenge patents would be restricted and generic companies would have less incentive to produce and market cheaper drugs.

However, it is far from clear that these deals could shield patents in standard Hatch-Waxman district court litigation.  Hatch-Waxman litigation typically follows a familiar pattern: a generic company files a Paragraph IV ANDA alleging patent owner’s patents are invalid or will not be infringed, the patent owner then sues the generic for infringement, and then the generic company files a counterclaim for invalidity.  Critics of the Allergan-Mohawk deal allege that tribal sovereignty could insulate patent owners from the counterclaim.  However, courts have held that state universities waive sovereign immunity for counterclaims when they file the initial patent infringement suit.  Although, in non-infringement contexts, tribes have been found to not waive sovereign immunity for counterclaims merely by filing an action as a plaintiff, this has never been tested in patent litigation.  Moreover, even if sovereign immunity could be used to prevent the counterclaim, invalidity can still be raised as an affirmative defense in the patent owner’s infringement suit (although it has been asserted that requiring generics to assert invalidity as an affirmative defense instead of a counterclaim may still tilt the playing field toward patent owners).  Finally, many patent owners that are sovereigns may choose to voluntarily waive sovereign immunity to head off any criticism or congressional meddling. Given the uncertainty of the effects of tribal sovereignty in Hatch-Waxman litigation, Allergan has concluded that their deal with the Mohawks won’t affect the pending district court litigation involving the validity of the Restasis patents.  However, if tribes in future cases were to cloud the viability of Hatch-Waxman by asserting sovereign immunity in district court litigation, Congress could always respond by altering the Hatch-Waxman rules to preclude this.

For now, we should all take a deep breath and put the fearmongering on hold.  Whether deals like the Allergan-Mohawk arrangement could affect Hatch-Waxman litigation is simply a matter of speculation, and there are many reasons to believe that they won’t. In the meantime, the deal between Allergan and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe is an ingenious strategy to avoid the unbalanced IPR process.   This move is the natural extension of the PTAB’s ruling on state university sovereign immunity, and state universities are likely incorporating the advantage into their own licensing and litigation strategies.  The Supreme Court will soon hear a case questioning the constitutionality of the IPR process.  Until the courts or Congress act to reduce the disparities between IPR proceedings and Hatch-Waxman litigation, we can hardly blame patent owners from taking clever legal steps to avoid the unbalanced IPR process.

On Thursday, March 30, Friday March 31, and Monday April 3, Truth on the Market and the International Center for Law and Economics presented a blog symposium — Agricultural and Biotech Mergers: Implications for Antitrust Law and Economics in Innovative Industries — discussing three proposed agricultural/biotech industry mergers awaiting judgment by antitrust authorities around the globe. These proposed mergers — Bayer/Monsanto, Dow/DuPont and ChemChina/Syngenta — present a host of fascinating issues, many of which go to the core of merger enforcement in innovative industries — and antitrust law and economics more broadly.

The big issue for the symposium participants was innovation (as it was for the European Commission, which cleared the Dow/DuPont merger last week, subject to conditions, one of which related to the firms’ R&D activities).

Critics of the mergers, as currently proposed, asserted that the increased concentration arising from the “Big 6” Ag-biotech firms consolidating into the Big 4 could reduce innovation competition by (1) eliminating parallel paths of research and development (Moss); (2) creating highly integrated technology/traits/seeds/chemicals platforms that erect barriers to new entry platforms (Moss); (3) exploiting eventual network effects that may result from the shift towards data-driven agriculture to block new entry in input markets (Lianos); or (4) increasing incentives to refuse to license, impose discriminatory restrictions in technology licensing agreements, or tacitly “agree” not to compete (Moss).

Rather than fixating on horizontal market share, proponents of the mergers argued that innovative industries are often marked by disruptions and that investment in innovation is an important signal of competition (Manne). An evaluation of the overall level of innovation should include not only the additional economies of scale and scope of the merged firms, but also advancements made by more nimble, less risk-averse biotech companies and smaller firms, whose innovations the larger firms can incentivize through licensing or M&A (Shepherd). In fact, increased efficiency created by economies of scale and scope can make funds available to source innovation outside of the large firms (Shepherd).

In addition, innovation analysis must also account for the intricately interwoven nature of agricultural technology across seeds and traits, crop protection, and, now, digital farming (Sykuta). Combined product portfolios generate more data to analyze, resulting in increased data-driven value for farmers and more efficiently targeted R&D resources (Sykuta).

While critics voiced concerns over such platforms erecting barriers to entry, markets are contestable to the extent that incumbents are incentivized to compete (Russell). It is worth noting that certain industries with high barriers to entry or exit, significant sunk costs, and significant costs disadvantages for new entrants (including automobiles, wireless service, and cable networks) have seen their prices decrease substantially relative to inflation over the last 20 years — even as concentration has increased (Russell). Not coincidentally, product innovation in these industries, as in ag-biotech, has been high.

Ultimately, assessing the likely effects of each merger using static measures of market structure is arguably unreliable or irrelevant in dynamic markets with high levels of innovation (Manne).

Regarding patents, critics were skeptical that combining the patent portfolios of the merging companies would offer benefits beyond those arising from cross-licensing, and would serve to raise rivals’ costs (Ghosh). While this may be true in some cases, IP rights are probabilistic, especially in dynamic markets, as Nicolas Petit noted:

There is no certainty that R&D investments will lead to commercially successful applications; (ii) no guarantee that IP rights will resist to invalidity proceedings in court; (iii) little safety to competition by other product applications which do not practice the IP but provide substitute functionality; and (iv) no inevitability that the environmental, toxicological and regulatory authorization rights that (often) accompany IP rights will not be cancelled when legal requirements change.

In spite of these uncertainties, deals such as the pending ag-biotech mergers provide managers the opportunity to evaluate and reorganize assets to maximize innovation and return on investment in such a way that would not be possible absent a merger (Sykuta). Neither party would fully place its IP and innovation pipeline on the table otherwise.

For a complete rundown of the arguments both for and against, the full archive of symposium posts from our outstanding and diverse group of scholars, practitioners and other experts is available at this link, and individual posts can be easily accessed by clicking on the authors’ names below.

We’d like to thank all of the participants for their excellent contributions!

Nicolas Petit is Professor of Law at the University of Liege (Belgium) and Research Professor at the University of South Australia (UniSA)

This symposium offers a good opportunity to look again into the complex relation between concentration and innovation in antitrust policy. Whilst the details of the EC decision in Dow/Dupont remain unknown, the press release suggests that the issue of “incentives to innovate” was central to the review. Contrary to what had leaked in the antitrust press, the decision has apparently backed off from the introduction of a new “model”, and instead followed a more cautious approach. After a quick reminder of the conventional “appropriability v cannibalizationframework that drives merger analysis in innovation markets (1), I make two sets of hopefully innovative remarks on appropriability and IP rights (2) and on cannibalization in the ag-biotech sector (3).

Appropriability versus cannibalization

Antitrust economics 101 teach that mergers affect innovation incentives in two polar ways. A merger may increase innovation incentives. This occurs when the increment in power over price or output achieved through merger enhances the appropriability of the social returns to R&D. The appropriability effect of mergers is often tied to Joseph Schumpeter, who observed that the use of “protecting devices” for past investments like patent protection or trade secrecy constituted a “normal elemen[t] of rational management”. The appropriability effect can in principle be observed at firm – specific incentives – and industry – general incentives – levels, because actual or potential competitors can also use the M&A market to appropriate the payoffs of R&D investments.

But a merger may decrease innovation incentives. This happens when the increased industry position achieved through merger discourages the introduction of new products, processes or services. This is because an invention will cannibalize the merged entity profits in proportions larger as would be the case in a more competitive market structure. This idea is often tied to Kenneth Arrow who famously observed that a “preinvention monopoly power acts as a strong disincentive to further innovation”.

Schumpeter’s appropriability hypothesis and Arrow’s cannibalization theory continue to drive much of the discussion on concentration and innovation in antitrust economics. True, many efforts have been made to overcome, reconcile or bypass both views of the world. Recent studies by Carl Shapiro or Jon Baker are worth mentioning. But Schumpeter and Arrow remain sticky references in any discussion of the issue. Perhaps more than anything, the persistence of their ideas denotes that both touched a bottom point when they made their seminal contribution, laying down two systems of belief on the workings of innovation-driven markets.

Now beyond the theory, the appropriability v cannibalization gravitational models provide from the outset an appealing framework for the examination of mergers in R&D driven industries in general. From an operational perspective, the antitrust agency will attempt to understand if the transaction increases appropriability – which leans in favour of clearance – or cannibalization – which leans in favour of remediation. At the same time, however, the downside of the appropriability v cannibalization framework (and of any framework more generally) may be to oversimplify our understanding of complex phenomena. This, in turn, prompts two important observations on each branch of the framework.

Appropriability and IP rights

Any antitrust agency committed to promoting competition and innovation should consider mergers in light of the degree of appropriability afforded by existing protecting devices (essentially contracts and entitlements). This is where Intellectual Property (“IP”) rights become relevant to the discussion. In an industry with strong IP rights, the merging parties (and its rivals) may be able to appropriate the social returns to R&D without further corporate concentration. Put differently, the stronger the IP rights, the lower the incremental contribution of a merger transaction to innovation, and the higher the case for remediation.

This latter proposition, however, rests on a heavy assumption: that IP rights confer perfect appropriability. The point is, however, far from obvious. Most of us know that – and our antitrust agencies’ misgivings with other sectors confirm it – IP rights are probabilistic in nature. There is (i) no certainty that R&D investments will lead to commercially successful applications; (ii) no guarantee that IP rights will resist to invalidity proceedings in court; (iii) little safety to competition by other product applications which do not practice the IP but provide substitute functionality; and (iv) no inevitability that the environmental, toxicological and regulatory authorization rights that (often) accompany IP rights will not be cancelled when legal requirements change. Arrow himself called for caution, noting that “Patent laws would have to be unimaginably complex and subtle to permit [such] appropriation on a large scale”. A thorough inquiry into the specific industry-strength of IP rights that goes beyond patent data and statistics thus constitutes a necessary step in merger review.

But it is not a sufficient one. The proposition that strong IP rights provide appropriability is essentially valid if the observed pre-merger market situation is one where several IP owners compete on differentiated products and as a result wield a degree of market power. In contrast, the proposition is essentially invalid if the observed pre-merger market situation leans more towards the competitive equilibrium and IP owners compete at prices closer to costs. In both variants, the agency should thus look carefully at the level and evolution of prices and costs, including R&D ones, in the pre-merger industry. Moreover, in the second variant, the agency ought to consider as a favourable appropriability factor any increase of the merging entity’s power over price, but also any improvement of its power over cost. By this, I have in mind efficiency benefits, which can arise as the result of economies of scale (in manufacturing but also in R&D), but also when the transaction combines complementary technological and marketing assets. In Dow/Dupont, no efficiency argument has apparently been made by the parties, so it is difficult to understand if and how such issues have played a role in the Commission’s assessment.

Cannibalization, technological change, and drastic innovation

Arrow’s cannibalization theory – namely that a pre-invention monopoly acts as a strong disincentive to further innovation – fails to capture that successful inventions create new technology frontiers, and with them entirely novel needs that even a monopolist has an incentive to serve. This can be understood with an example taken from the ag-biotech field. It is undisputed that progress in crop protection science has led to an expanding range of resistant insects, weeds, and pathogens. This, in turn, is one (if not the main) key drivers of ag-tech research. In a 2017 paper published in Pest Management Science, Sparks and Lorsbach observe that:

resistance to agrochemicals is an ongoing driver for the development of new chemical control options, along with an increased emphasis on resistance management and how these new tools can fit into resistance management programs. Because resistance is such a key driver for the development of new agrochemicals, a highly prized attribute for a new agrochemical is a new MoA [method of action] that is ideally a new molecular target either in an existing target site (e.g., an unexploited binding site in the voltage-gated sodium channel), or new/under-utilized target site such as calcium channels.

This, and other factors, leads them to conclude that:

even with fewer companies overall involved in agrochemical discovery, innovation continues, as demonstrated by the continued introduction of new classes of agrochemicals with new MoAs.

Sparks, Hahn, and Garizi make a similar point. They stress in particular that the discovery of natural products (NPs) which are the “output of nature’s chemical laboratory” is today a main driver of crop protection research. According to them:

NPs provide very significant value in identifying new MoAs, with 60% of all agrochemical MoAs being, or could have been, defined by a NP. This information again points to the importance of NPs in agrochemical discovery, since new MoAs remain a top priority for new agrochemicals.

More generally, the point is not that Arrow’s cannibalization theory is wrong. Arrow’s work convincingly explains monopolists’ low incentives to invest in substitute invention. Instead, the point is that Arrow’s cannibalization theory is narrower than often assumed in the antitrust policy literature. Admittedly, Arrow’s cannibalization theory is relevant in industries primarily driven by a process of cumulative innovation. But it is much less helpful to understand the incentives of a monopolist in industries subject to technological change. As a result of this, the first question that should guide an antitrust agency investigation is empirical in nature: is the industry under consideration one driven by cumulative innovation, or one where technology disruption, shocks, and serendipity incentivize drastic innovation?

Note that exogenous factors beyond technological frontiers also promote drastic innovation. This point ought not to be overlooked. A sizeable amount of the specialist scientific literature stresses the powerful innovation incentives created by changing dietary habits, new diseases (e.g. the Zika virus), global population growth, and environmental challenges like climate change and weather extremes. In 2015, Jeschke noted:

In spite of the significant consolidation of the agrochemical companies, modern agricultural chemistry is vital and will have the opportunity to shape the future of agriculture by continuing to deliver further innovative integrated solutions. 

Words of wisdom caution for antitrust agencies tasked with the complex mission of reviewing mergers in the ag-biotech industry?

Shubha Ghosh is Crandall Melvin Professor of Law and Director of the Technology Commercialization Law Program at Syracuse University College of Law

How should patents be taken into consideration in merger analysis? When does the combining of patent portfolios lead to anticompetitive concerns? Two principles should guide these inquiries. First, as the Supreme Court held in its 2006 decision Independent Ink, ownership of a patent does not confer market power. This ruling came in the context of a tying claim, but it is generalizable. While ownership of a patent can provide advantages in the market, such as access to techniques that are more effective than what is available to a competitor or the ability to keep competitors from making desirable differentiations in existing products, ownership of a patent or patent portfolio does not per se confer market power. Competitors might have equally strong and broad patent portfolios. The power to limit price competition is possibly counterweighted by competition over technology and product quality.

A second principle about patents and markets, however, bespeaks more caution in antitrust analysis. Patents can create information problems while at the same time potentially resolving some externality problems arising from knowledge spillovers. Information problems arise because patents are not well-defined property rights with clear boundaries. While patents are granted to novel, nonobvious, useful, and concrete inventions (as opposed to abstract, disembodied ideas), it is far from clear when a patented invention is actually nonobvious. Patent rights extend to several possible embodiments of a novel, useful, and nonobvious conception. While in theory this problem could be solved by limiting patent rights to narrow embodiments, the net result would be increased uncertainty through patent thickets and divided ownership. Inventions do not come in readily discernible units or engineered metes and bounds (despite the rhetoric).

The information problems created by patents do not create traditional market power in the sense of having some control over the price charged to consumers, but they do impose costs on competitors that can give a patent owner some control over market entry and the market conditions confronting consumers. The Court’s perhaps sanguine decoupling of patents and market power in its 2006 decision has some valence in a market setting where patent rights are somewhat equally distributed among competitors. In such a setting, each firm faces the same uncertainties that arise from patents. However, if patent ownership is imbalanced among firms, competition authorities need to act with caution. The challenge is identifying an unbalanced patent position in the marketplace.

Mergers among patent-owning firms invite antitrust scrutiny for these reasons. Metrics of patent ownership focusing solely on the quantity of patents owned, adjusting for the number of claims, can offer a snapshot of ownership distribution. But patent numbers need to be connected to the costs of operating the firm. Patents can lower a firm’s costs, create a niche for a particular differentiated product, and give a firm a head start in the next generation of technologies. Mergers that lead to an increased concentration of patent ownership may raise eyebrows, but those that lead to significant increase in costs to competitors and create potential impediments to market entry require a response from competition authorities. This response could be a blocking of the merger or perhaps more practically, in most instances, a divestment of the patent portfolio through requirements of licensing. This last approach is particularly appropriate where the technologies at issue are analogous to standard essential patents in the standard setting with FRAND context.

Claims of synergies should, in many instances, be met with skepticism when the patent portfolios of the merging companies are combined. While the technologies may be complementary, yielding benefits that go beyond those arising from a cross-licensing arrangement, the integration of portfolios may serve to raise costs for potential rivals in the marketplace. These barriers to entry may arise even in the case of vertical integration when the firms internalize contracting costs for technology transfer through ownership. Vertical integration of patent portfolios may raise costs for rivals both at the manufacturing and the distribution levels.

These ideas are set forth as propositions to be tested, but also general policy guidance for merger review involving companies with substantial patent portfolios. The ChemChina-Syngenta merger perhaps opens up global markets, but may likely impose barriers for companies in the agriculture market. The Bayer-Monsanto and Dow-DuPont mergers have questionable synergies. Even if potential synergies, these projected benefits need to be weighed against the very identifiable sources for market foreclosure. While patents may not create market power per se, according to the Supreme Court, the potential for mischief should not be underestimated.