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Public comments on the proposed revision to the joint U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust-IP Licensing Guidelines have, not surprisingly, focused primarily on fine points of antitrust analysis carried out by those two federal agencies (see, for example, the thoughtful recommendations by the Global Antitrust Institute, here).  In a September 23 submission to the FTC and the DOJ, however, U.S. International Trade Commissioner F. Scott Kieff focused on a broader theme – that patent-antitrust assessments should keep in mind the indirect effects on commercialization that stem from IP (and, in particular, patents).  Kieff argues that antitrust enforcers have employed a public law “rules-based” approach that balances the “incentive to innovate” created when patents prevent copying against the goals of competition.  In contrast, Kieff characterizes the commercialization approach as rooted in the property rights nature of patents and the use of private contracting to bring together complementary assets and facilitate coordination.  As Kieff explains (in italics, footnote citations deleted):

A commercialization approach to IP views IP more in the tradition of private law, rather than public law. It does so by placing greater emphasis on viewing IP as property rights, which in turn is accomplished by greater reliance on interactions among private parties over or around those property rights, including via contracts. Centered on the relationships among private parties, this approach to IP emphasizes a different target and a different mechanism by which IP can operate. Rather than target particular individuals who are likely to respond to IP as incentives to create or invent in particular, this approach targets a broad, diverse set of market actors in general; and it does so indirectly. This broad set of indirectly targeted actors encompasses the creator or inventor of the underlying IP asset as well as all those complementary users of a creation or an invention who can help bring it to market, such as investors (including venture capitalists), entrepreneurs, managers, marketers, developers, laborers, and owners of other key assets, tangible and intangible, including other creations or inventions. Another key difference in this approach to IP lies in the mechanism by which these private actors interact over and around IP assets. This approach sees IP rights as tools for facilitating coordination among these diverse private actors, in furtherance of their own private interests in commercializing the creation or invention.

This commercialization approach sees property rights in IP serving a role akin to beacons in the dark, drawing to themselves all of those potential complementary users of the IP-protected-asset to interact with the IP owner and each other. This helps them each explore through the bargaining process the possibility of striking contracts with each other.

Several payoffs can flow from using this commercialization approach. Focusing on such a beacon-and-bargain effect can relieve the governmental side of the IP system of the need to amass the detailed information required to reasonably tailor a direct targeted incentive, such as each actor’s relative interests and contributions, needs, skills, or the like. Not only is amassing all of that information hard for the government to do, but large, established market actors may be better able than smaller market entrants to wield the political influence needed to get the government to act, increasing risk of concerns about political economy, public choice, and fairness. Instead, when governmental bodies closely adhere to a commercialization approach, each private party can bring its own expertise and other assets to the negotiating table while knowing—without necessarily having to reveal to other parties or the government—enough about its own level of interest and capability when it decides whether to strike a deal or not.            

Such successful coordination may help bring new business models, products, and services to market, thereby decreasing anticompetitive concentration of market power. It also can allow IP owners and their contracting parties to appropriate the returns to any of the rival inputs they invested towards developing and commercializing creations or inventions—labor, lab space, capital, and the like. At the same time, the government can avoid having to then go back to evaluate and trace the actual relative contributions that each participant brought to a creation’s or an invention’s successful commercialization—including, again, the cost of obtaining and using that information and the associated risks of political influence—by enforcing the terms of the contracts these parties strike with each other to allocate any value resulting from the creation’s or invention’s commercialization. In addition, significant economic theory and empirical evidence suggests this can all happen while the quality-adjusted prices paid by many end users actually decline and public access is high. In keeping with this commercialization approach, patents can be important antimonopoly devices, helping a smaller “David” come to market and compete against a larger “Goliath.”

A commercialization approach thereby mitigates many of the challenges raised by the tension that is a focus of the other intellectual approaches to IP, as well as by the responses these other approaches have offered to that tension, including some – but not all – types of AT regulation and enforcement. Many of the alternatives to IP that are often suggested by other approaches to IP, such as rewards, tax credits, or detailed rate regulation of royalties by AT enforcers can face significant challenges in facilitating the private sector coordination benefits envisioned by the commercialization approach to IP. While such approaches often are motivated by concerns about rising prices paid by consumers and direct benefits paid to creators and inventors, they may not account for the important cases in which IP rights are associated with declines in quality-adjusted prices paid by consumers and other forms of commercial benefits accrued to the entire IP production team as well as to consumers and third parties, which are emphasized in a commercialization approach. In addition, a commercialization approach can embrace many of the practical checks on the market power of an IP right that are often suggested by other approaches to IP, such as AT review, government takings, and compulsory licensing. At the same time this approach can show the importance of maintaining self-limiting principles within each such check to maintain commercialization benefits and mitigate concerns about dynamic efficiency, public choice, fairness, and the like.

To be sure, a focus on commercialization does not ignore creators or inventors or creations or inventions themselves. For example, a system successful in commercializing inventions can have the collateral benefit of providing positive incentives to those who do invent through the possibility of sharing in the many rewards associated with successful commercialization. Nor does a focus on commercialization guarantee that IP rights cause more help than harm. Significant theoretical and empirical questions remain open about benefits and costs of each approach to IP. And significant room to operate can remain for AT enforcers pursuing their important public mission, including at the IP-AT interface.

Commissioner Kieff’s evaluation is in harmony with other recent scholarly work, including Professor Dan Spulber’s explanation that the actual nature of long-term private contracting arrangements among patent licensors and licensees avoids alleged competitive “imperfections,” such as harmful “patent hold-ups,” “patent thickets,” and “royalty stacking” (see my discussion here).  More generally, Commissioner Kieff’s latest pronouncement is part of a broader and growing theoretical and empirical literature that demonstrates close associations between strong patent systems and economic growth and innovation (see, for example, here).

There is a major lesson here for U.S. (and foreign) antitrust enforcement agencies.  As I have previously pointed out (see, for example, here), in recent years, antitrust enforcers here and abroad have taken positions that tend to weaken patent rights.  Those positions typically are justified by the existence of “patent policy deficiencies” such as those that Professor Spulber’s paper debunks, as well as an alleged epidemic of low quality “probabilistic patents” (see, for example, here) – justifications that ignore the substantial economic benefits patents confer on society through contracting and commercialization.  It is high time for antitrust to accommodate the insights drawn from this new learning.  Specifically, government enforcers should change their approach and begin incorporating private law/contracting/commercialization considerations into patent-antitrust analysis, in order to advance the core goals of antitrust – the promotion of consumer welfare and efficiency.  Better yet, if the FTC and DOJ truly want to maximize the net welfare benefits of antitrust, they should undertake a more general “policy reboot” and adopt a “decision-theoretic” error cost approach to enforcement policy, rooted in cost-benefit analysis (see here) and consistent with the general thrust of Roberts Court antitrust jurisprudence (see here).

David Balto is a Public Interest Attorney at the Law Offices of David Balto

I appreciate the opportunity to provide comments on the current Section 5 discussion and add a few modest thoughts about the very thoughtful speeches of Commissioners Wright and Ohlhausen. I must admit, that as a former FTC Policy dude my mouth salivates at the thought of any new Guidelines. After all what could be more fun that coming out with thought pieces, speeches, commentaries, drafts, revised drafts, reply drafts, and more drafts. What could be more enjoyable than spending hundreds of hours parsing through every word to debate and detect every nuance. And then providing a document that is both sufficiently flexible and informative that it can live and adjust to changing circumstances – that sounds like fun. Why this sounds like an effort that would make any Talmudic debate sound like a simple task.

So I wonder at the outset:  what is the need for any policy statement or guidelines. Although both speeches perhaps may raise the specter of unwarranted enforcement I simply do not see it. No matter what recent FTC administration we refer to the actions seem extremely modest. There are less than a handful of cases in the past decades.

Indeed, the lack of enforcement  should raise concern about the ability to issue any type of policy statement. The question, quite legitimate is whether the agency has the experience from Section 5 enforcement to fully articulate the set of issues and criteria necessary to conclude a practice is an unfair method of competition.

Another concern might be that unclear Section 5 powers might stifle firms from engaging in potentially procompetitive or efficient conduct. So I decided to test that proposition (very informally) by reading through a handful of antitrust counseling treatises on issues such as distribution.  I could find nary a single mention of some additional liability firms faced or additional uncertainty because of the FTC’s Section 5 powers. Obviously the areas where the Commission has tread so far – invitations to collude, improper information sharing and deception involving standards are the types of conduct that have so little redeeming merit that there is no concern over stifling procompetitive conduct.

So as the old lady in the Wendy’s commercial of the 1980s says “Where’s the Beef?”

Now as to the speeches I have a few observations.

First, Section 5 is a law enforcement statute. Congress enacted it to enable the Commission to challenge conduct that was broader that the Sherman Act. It is not a regulatory statute. Like all antitrust laws (except that adopted cousin the Robinson Patman Act) it is a generalist statute, broad in nature to give the Commission and the courts the ability to adapt to changing conduct and changing market conditions. We do not issue policy statements for the other antitrust statutes (there is no statement defining an unreasonable restraint of trade).  Why should there be a statement defining an unfair method of competition?

Second, neither of the speeches recognize that Section 5 is an incipiency statute (like the Clayton Act). Congress intended the FTC to use the statute to attack practices in their incipiency before they become full blown violations.

Third, Commissioner Ohlhausen relies in detail on the Clinton-era executive order on Regulatory Planning and Review EO 12866. I find the idea intriguing but that EO is intended for regulatory agencies and their regulatory regimes – not law enforcement. There are strong reasons why it is necessary to rein in regulatory agencies especially because of the costs they can impose through their regulations. A single law enforcement action does not raise these concerns.

Commissioners Ohlhausen suggests that the agency should hold its fire if there may be other regulatory alternatives (“using the most direct route”). Let’s look at the Phoebe Putney merger or the situations involving regulatory abuse such as the FTC’s 2003 case against Bristol Myers. Would we really feel confident in lobbying the Georgia state legislature or the FDA as an alternative?

Finally, I am concerned about one possible unintended consequence. 29 states have little FTC Acts which condemn unfair methods of competition. Those Acts have led to dozens of important enforcement actions benefitting consumers. Any FTC policy statement on UMC can potentially weaken enforcement under those Acts.