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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.

On Tuesday the European Commission opened formal proceedings against Motorola Mobility based on its patent licensing practices surrounding some of its core cellular telephony, Internet video and Wi-fi technology. The Commission’s concerns, echoing those raised by Microsoft and Apple, center on Motorola’s allegedly high royalty rates and its efforts to use injunctions to enforce the “standards-essential patents” at issue.

As it happens, this development is just the latest, like so many in the tech world these days, in Microsoft’s ongoing regulatory, policy and legal war against Google, which announced in August it was planning to buy Motorola.

Microsoft’s claim and the Commission’s concern that Motorola’s royalty offer was, in Microsoft’s colorful phrase, “so over-reaching that no rational company could ever have accepted it or even viewed it as a legitimate offer,” is misplaced. Motorola is seeking a royalty rate for its patents that is seemingly in line with customary rates.

In fact, Microsoft’s claim that Motorola’s royalty ask is extraordinary is refuted by its own conduct. As one commentator notes:

Microsoft complained that it might have to pay a tribute of up to $22.50 for every $1,000 laptop sold, and suggested that it might be fairer to pay just a few cents. This is the firm that is thought to make $10 to $15 from every $500 Android device that is sold, and for a raft of trivial software patents, not standard essential ones.

Seemingly forgetting this, Microsoft criticizes Motorola’s royalty ask on its 50 H.264 video codec patents by comparing it to the amount Microsoft pays for more than 2000 other patents in the video codec’s patent pool, claiming that the former would cost it $4 billion while the latter costs it only $6.5 million. But this is comparing apples and oranges. It is not surprising to find some patents worth orders of magnitude more than others and to find that license rates are a complicated function of the contracting parties’ particular negotiating positions and circumstances. It is no more inherently inappropriate for Microsoft to rake in 2-3% of the price of every Nook Barnes and Nobles sells than it is for Motorola to net 2.25% of the price of each Windows-operated computer sold – which is the royalty rate Motorola is seeking and which Microsoft wants declared anticompetitive out of hand.

It’s not clear how much negotiation, if any, has taken place between the companies over the terms of Microsoft’s licensing of Motorola’s patents, but what is clear is that Microsoft’s complaint, echoed by the EC, is based on the size of Motorola’s initial royalty demand and its use of a legal injunction to enforce its patent rights. Unfortunately, neither of these is particularly problematic, especially in an environment where companies like Microsoft and Apple aggressively wield exactly such tools to gain a competitive negotiating edge over their own competitors.

The court adjudicating this dispute in the ongoing litigation in U.S. district court in Washington has thus far agreed. The court denied Microsoft’s request for summary judgment that Motorola’s royalty demand violated its RAND commitment, noting its disagreement with Microsoft’s claim that “it is always facially unreasonable for a proposed royalty rate to result in a larger royalty payment for products that have higher end prices. Indeed, Motorola has previously entered into licensing agreements for its declared-essential patents at royalty rates similar to those offered to Microsoft and with royalty rates based on the price of the end product.”

The staggering aggregate numbers touted by Microsoft in its complaint and repeated by bloggers and journalists the world over are not a function of Motorola seeking an exorbitant royalty but rather a function Microsoft’s selling a lot of operating systems and earning a lot of revenue doing it. While the aggregate number ($4 billion, according to Microsoft) is huge, it is, as the court notes, based on a royalty rate that is in line with similar agreements.

The court also takes issue with Microsoft’s contention that the mere offer of allegedly unreasonable terms constitutes a breach of Motorola’s RAND commitment to license its patents on commercially reasonable terms. Quite sensibly, the court notes:

[T]he court is mindful that at the time of an initial offer, it is difficult for the offeror to know what would in fact constitute RAND terms for the offeree. Thus, what may appear to be RAND terms from the offeror’s perspective may be rejected out-of-pocket as non-RAND terms by the offeree. Indeed, it would appear that at any point in the negotiation process, the parties may have a genuine disagreement as to what terms and conditions of a license constitute RAND under the parties’ unique circumstances.

Resolution of such an impasse may ultimately fall to the courts. Thus the royalty rate issue is in fact closely related to the second issue raised by the EC’s investigation: the use or threat of injunction to enforce standards-essential patents.

While some scholars and many policy advocates claim that injunctions in the standards context raise the specter of costly hold-ups (patent holders extracting not only the market value of their patent, but also a portion of the costs that the infringer would incur if it had to implement its technology without the patent), there is no empirical evidence supporting the claim that patent holdup is a pervasive problem.

And the theory doesn’t comfortably support such a claim, either. Motorola, for example, has no interest in actually enforcing an injunction: Doing so is expensive and, notably, not nearly as good for the bottom line as actually receiving royalties from an agreed-upon contract. Instead, injunctions are, just like the more-attenuated liability suit for patent infringement, a central aspect of our intellectual property system, the means by which innovators and their financiers can reasonably expect a return on their substantial up-front investments in technology development.

Moreover, and apparently unbeknownst to those who claim that injunctions are the antithesis of negotiated solutions to licensing contests, the threat of injunction actually facilitates efficient transacting. Injunctions provide clearer penalties than damage awards for failing to reach consensus and are thus better at getting both parties on to the table with matched expectations. And this is especially true in the standards-setting context where the relevant parties are generally repeat players and where they very often have both patents to license and the need to license patents from the standard—both of which help to induce everyone to come to the table, lest they find themselves closed off from patents essential to their own products.

Antitrust intervention in standard setting negotiations based on an allegedly high initial royalty rate offer or the use of an injunction to enforce a patent is misdirected and costly. One of the clearest statements of the need for antitrust restraint in the standard setting context comes from a June 2011 comment filed with the FTC:

[T]he existence of a RAND commitment to offer patent licenses should not preclude a patent holder from seeking preliminary injunctive relief. . . . Any uniform declaration that such relief would not be available if the patent holder has made a commitment to offer a RAND license for its essential patent claims in connection with a standard may reduce any incentives that implementers might have to engage in good faith negotiations with the patent holder.

Most of the SSOs and their stakeholders that have considered these proposals over the years have determined that there are only a limited number of situations where patent hold-up takes place in the context of standards-setting. The industry has determined that those situations generally are best addressed through bi-lateral negotiation (and, in rare cases, litigation) as opposed to modifying the SSO’s IPR policy [by precluding injunctions or mandating a particular negotiation process].

The statement’s author? Why, Microsoft, of course.

Patents are an important tool for encouraging the development and commercialization of advanced technology, as are standard setting organizations. Antitrust authorities should exercise great restraint before intervening in the complex commercial negotiations over technology patents and standards. In Motorola’s case, the evidence of conduct that might harm competition is absent, and all that remains are, in essence, allegations that Motorola is bargaining hard and enforcing its property rights. The EC should let competition run its course.