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Late last month, 25 former judges and government officials, legal academics and economists who are experts in antitrust and intellectual property law submitted a letter to Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter in support of the U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) July 2020 Avanci business-review letter (ABRL) dealing with patent pools. The pro-Avanci letter was offered in response to an October 2022 letter to Kanter from ABRL critics that called for reconsideration of the ABRL. A good summary account of the “battle of the scholarly letters” may be found here.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Herbert Hovenkamp defines a patent pool as “an arrangement under which patent holders in a common technology or market commit their patents to a single holder, who then licenses them out to the original patentees and perhaps to outsiders.” Although the U.S. antitrust treatment of patent pools might appear a rather arcane topic, it has major implications for U.S. innovation. As AAG Kanter ponders whether to dive into patent-pool policy, a brief review of this timely topic is in order. That review reveals that Kanter should reject the anti-Avanci letter and reaffirm the ABRL.

Background on Patent Pool Analysis

The 2017 DOJ-FTC IP Licensing Guidelines

Section 5.5 of joint DOJ-Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property (2017 Guidelines, which revised a prior 1995 version) provides an overview of the agencies’ competitive assessment of patent pools. The 2017 Guidelines explain that, depending on how pools are designed and operated, they may have procompetitive (and efficiency-enhancing) or anticompetitive features.

On the positive side of the ledger, Section 5.5 states:

Cross-licensing and pooling arrangements are agreements of two or more owners of different items of intellectual property to license one another or third parties. These arrangements may provide procompetitive benefits by integrating complementary technologies, reducing transaction costs, clearing blocking positions, and avoiding costly infringement litigation. By promoting the dissemination of technology, cross-licensing and pooling arrangements are often procompetitive.

On the negative side of the ledger, Section 5.5 states (citations omitted):

Cross-licensing and pooling arrangements can have anticompetitive effects in certain circumstances. For example, collective price or output restraints in pooling arrangements, such as the joint marketing of pooled intellectual property rights with collective price setting or coordinated output restrictions, may be deemed unlawful if they do not contribute to an efficiency-enhancing integration of economic activity among the participants. When cross-licensing or pooling arrangements are mechanisms to accomplish naked price-fixing or market division, they are subject to challenge under the per se rule.

Other aspects of pool behavior may be either procompetitive or anticompetitive, depending upon the circumstances, as Section 5.5 explains. The antitrust rule of reason would apply to pool restraints that may have both procompetitive and anticompetitive features.  

For example, requirements that pool members grant licenses to each other for current and future technology at minimal cost could disincentivize research and development. Such requirements, however, could also promote competition by exploiting economies of scale and integrating complementary capabilities of the pool members. According to the 2017 Guidelines, such requirements are likely to cause competitive problems only when they include a large fraction of the potential research and development in an R&D market.

Section 5.5 also applies rule-of-reason case-specific treatment to exclusion from pools. It notes that, although pooling arrangements generally need not be open to all who wish to join (indeed, exclusion of certain parties may be designed to prevent potential free riding), they may be anticompetitive under certain circumstances (citations omitted):

[E]xclusion from a pooling or cross-licensing arrangement among competing technologies is unlikely to have anticompetitive effects unless (1) excluded firms cannot effectively compete in the relevant market for the good incorporating the licensed technologies and (2) the pool participants collectively possess market power in the relevant market. If these circumstances exist, the [federal antitrust] [a]gencies will evaluate whether the arrangement’s limitations on participation are reasonably related to the efficient development and exploitation of the pooled technologies and will assess the net effect of those limitations in the relevant market.

The 2017 Guidelines are informed by the analysis of prior agency-enforcement actions and prior DOJ business-review letters. Through the business-review-letter procedure, an organization may submit a proposed action to the DOJ Antitrust Division and receive a statement as to whether the Division currently intends to challenge the action under the antitrust laws, based on the information provided. Historically, DOJ has used these letters as a vehicle to discuss current agency thinking about safeguards that may be included in particular forms of business arrangements to alleviate DOJ competitive concerns.

DOJ patent-pool letters, in particular, have prompted DOJ to highlight specific sorts of provisions in pool agreements that forestalled competitive problems. To this point, DOJ has never commented favorably on patent-pool safeguards in a letter and then subsequently reversed course to find the safeguards inadequate.

Subsequent to issuance of the 2017 Guidelines, DOJ issued two business-review letters on patent pools: the July 2020 ABRL letter and the January 2021 University Technology Licensing Program business-review letter (UTLP letter). Those two letters favorably discussed competitive safeguards proffered by the entities requesting favorable DOJ reviews.

ABRL Letter

The ABRL letter explains (citations omitted):

[Avanci] proposed [a] joint patent-licensing pool . . . to . . . license patent claims that have been declared “essential” to implementing 5G cellular wireless standards for use in automobile vehicles and distribute royalty income among the Platform’s licensors. Avanci currently operates a licensing platform related to 4G cellular standards and offers licenses to 2G, 3G, and 4G standards-essential patents used in vehicles and smart meters.

After consulting telecommunications and automobile-industry stakeholders, conducing an independent review, and considering prior guidance to other patent pools, “DOJ conclude[d] that, on balance, Avanci’s proposed 5G Platform is unlikely to harm competition.” As such, DOJ announced it had no present intention to challenge the platform.

The DOJ press release accompanying the ABRL letter provides additional valuable information on Avanci’s potential procompetitive efficiencies; its plan to charge fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) rates; and its proposed safeguards:

Avanci’s 5G Platform may make licensing standard essential patents related to vehicle connectivity more efficient by providing automakers with a “one stop shop” for licensing 5G technology. The Platform also has the potential to reduce patent infringement and ensure that patent owners who have made significant contributions to the development of 5G “Release 15” specifications are compensated for their innovation. Avanci represents that the Platform will charge FRAND rates for the patented technologies, with input from both licensors and licensees.

In addition, Avanci has incorporated a number of safeguards into its 5G Platform that can help protect competition, including licensing only technically essential patents; providing for independent evaluation of essential patents; permitting licensing outside the Platform, including in other fields of use, bilateral or multi-lateral licensing by pool members, and the formation of other pools at levels of the automotive supply chain; and by including mechanisms to prevent the sharing of competitively sensitive information.  The Department’s review found that the Platform’s essentiality review may help automakers license the patents they actually need to make connected vehicles.  In addition, the Platform license includes “Have Made” rights that creates new access to cellular standard essential patents for licensed automakers’ third-party component suppliers, permitting them to make non-infringing components for 5G connected vehicles.

UTLP Letter

The United Technology Licensing Program business-review letter (issued less than a year after the ABRL letter, at the end of the Trump administration) discussed a proposal by participating universities to offer licenses to their physical-science patents relating to specified emerging technologies. According to DOJ:

[Fifteen universities agreed to cooperate] in licensing certain complementary patents through UTLP, which will be organized into curated portfolios relating to specific technology applications for autonomous vehicles, the “Internet of Things,” and “Big Data.”  The overarching goal of UTLP is to centralize the administrative costs associated with commercializing university research and help participating universities to overcome the budget, institutional relationship, and other constraints that make licensing in these areas particularly challenging for them.

The UTLP letter concluded, based on representations made in UTLP’s letter request, that the pool was on balance unlikely to harm competition. Specifically:

UTLP has incorporated a number of safeguards into its program to help protect competition, including admitting only non-substitutable patents, with a “safety valve” if a patent to accomplish a particular task is inadvertently included in a portfolio with another, substitutable patent. The program also will allow potential sublicensees to choose an individual patent, a group of patents, or UTLP’s entire portfolio, thereby mitigating the risk that a licensee will be required to license more technology than it needs. The department’s letter notes that UTLP is a mechanism that is intended to address licensing inefficiencies and institutional challenges unique to universities in the physical science context, and makes no assessment about whether this mechanism if set up in another context would have similar procompetitive benefits.

Patent-Pool Guidance in Context

DOJ and FTC patent-pool guidance has been bipartisan. It has remained generally consistent in character from the mid-1990s (when the first 1995 IP licensing guidelines were issued) to early 2021 (the end of the Trump administration, when the UTLP letter was issued). The overarching concern expressed in agency guidance has been to prevent a pool from facilitating collusion among competitors, from discouraging innovation, and from inefficiently excluding competitors.

As technology has advanced over the last quarter century, U.S. antitrust enforcers—and, in particular, DOJ, through a series of business-review letters beginning in 1997 (see the pro-Avanci letter at pages 9-10)—consistently have emphasized the procompetitive efficiencies that pools can generate, while also noting the importance of avoiding anticompetitive harms.

Those letters have “given a pass” to pools whose rules contained safeguards against collusion among pool members (e.g., by limiting pool patents to complementary, not substitute, technologies) and against anticompetitive exclusion (e.g., by protecting pool members’ independence of action outside the pool). In assessing safeguards, DOJ has paid attention to the particular market context in which a pool arises.

Notably, economic research generally supports the conclusion that, in recent decades, patent pools have been an important factor in promoting procompetitive welfare-enhancing innovation and technology diffusion.

For example, a 2015 study by Justus Baron and Tim Pohlmann found that a significant number of pools were created following antitrust authorities’ “more permissive stance toward pooling of patents” beginning in the late 1990s. Studying these new pools, they found “a significant increase in patenting rates after pool announcement” that was “primarily attributable to future members of the pool”.

A 2009 analysis by Richard Gilbert of the University of California, Berkeley (who served as chief economist of the DOJ Antitrust Division during the Clinton administration) concluded that (consistent with the approach adopted in DOJ business-review letters) “antitrust authorities and the courts should encourage policies that promote the formation and durability of beneficial pools that combine complementary patents.”

In a 2014 assessment of the role of patent pools in combatting “patent thickets,” Jonathan Barnett of the USC Gould School of Law concluded:

Using network visualization software, I show that information and communication technology markets rely on patent pools and other cross-licensing structures to mitigate or avoid patent thickets and associated inefficiencies. Based on the composition, structure, terms and pricing of selected leading patent pools in the ICT market, I argue that those pools are best understood as mechanisms by which vertically integrated firms mitigate transactional frictions and reduce the cost of accessing technology inputs.

Admittedly, a few studies of some old patents pools (e.g., the 19th century sewing-machine pool and certain early 20th century New Deal pools) found them to be associated with a decline in patenting. Setting aside possible questions of those studies’ methodologies, the old pooling arrangements bear little resemblance to the carefully crafted pool structures today. In particular, unlike the old pools, the more recent pools embody competitive safeguards (the old pools may have combined substitute patents, for example).   

Business-review letters dealing with pools have provided a degree of legal certainty that has helped encourage their formation, to the benefit of innovation in key industries. The anti-Avanci letter ignores that salient fact, focusing instead on allegedly “abusive” SEP-licensing tactics by the Avanci 5G pool—such as refusal to automatically grant a license to all comers—without considering that the pool may have had legitimate reasons not to license particular parties (who may, for instance, have made bad faith unreasonable licensing demands). In sum, this blinkered approach is wrong as a matter of SEP law and policy (as explained in the pro-Avanci letter) and wrong in its implicit undermining of the socially beneficial patent-pool business-review process.   

The pro-Avanci letter ably describes the serious potential harm generated by the anti-Avanci letter:

In evaluating the carefully crafted Avanci pool structure, the 2020 business review letter appropriately concluded that the pool’s design conformed to the well-established, fact-intensive inquiry concerning actual market practices and efficiencies set forth in previous business review letters. Any reconsideration of the 2020 business review letter, as proposed in the October 17 letter, would give rise to significant uncertainty concerning the Antitrust Division’s commitment to the aforementioned sequence of business review letters that have been issued concerning other patent pools in the information technology industry, as well as the larger group of patent pools that did not specifically seek guidance through the business review letter process but relied on the legal template that had been set forth in those previously issued letters.

This is a point of great consequence. Pooling arrangements in the information technology industry have provided an efficient market-driven solution to the transaction costs that are inherent to patent-intensive industries and, when structured appropriately in light of agency guidance and applicable case law, do not raise undue antitrust concerns. Thanks to pooling and related collective licensing arrangements, the innovations embodied in tens of thousands of patents have been made available to hundreds of device producers and other intermediate users, while innovators have been able to earn a commensurate return on the costs and risks that they undertook to develop new technologies that have transformed entire fields and industries to the benefit of consumers.

Conclusion

President Joe Biden’s 2021 Executive Order on Competition commits the Biden administration to “the promotion of competition and innovation by firms small and large, at home and worldwide.” One factor in promoting competition and innovation has been the legal certainty flowing from well-reasoned DOJ business-review letters on patent pools, issued on a bipartisan basis for more than a quarter of a century.

A DOJ decision to reconsider (in other words, to withdraw) the sound guidance embodied in the ABRL would detract from this certainty and thereby threaten to undermine innovation promoted by patent pools. Accordingly, AAG Kanter should reject the advice proffered by the anti-Avanci letter and publicly reaffirm his support for the ABRL—and, more generally, for the DOJ business-review process.