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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).

Today, for the first time in its 100-year history, the FTC issued enforcement guidelines for cases brought by the agency under the Unfair Methods of Competition (“UMC”) provisions of Section 5 of the FTC Act.

The Statement of Enforcement Principles represents a significant victory for Commissioner Joshua Wright, who has been a tireless advocate for defining and limiting the scope of the Commission’s UMC authority since before his appointment to the FTC in 2013.

As we’ve noted many times before here at TOTM (including in our UMC Guidelines Blog Symposium), FTC enforcement principles for UMC actions have been in desperate need of clarification. Without any UMC standards, the FTC has been free to leverage its costly adjudication process into settlements (or short-term victories) and businesses have been left in the dark as to what what sorts of conduct might trigger enforcement. Through a series of unadjudicated settlements, UMC unfairness doctrine (such as it is) has remained largely within the province of FTC discretion and without judicial oversight. As a result, and either by design or by accident, UMC never developed a body of law encompassing well-defined goals or principles like antitrust’s consumer welfare standard.

Commissioner Wright has long been at the forefront of the battle to rein in the FTC’s discretion in this area and to promote the rule of law. Soon after joining the Commission, he called for Section 5 guidelines that would constrain UMC enforcement to further consumer welfare, tied to the economically informed analysis of competitive effects developed in antitrust law.

Today’s UMC Statement embodies the essential elements of Commissioner Wright’s proposal. Under the new guidelines:

  1. The Commission will make UMC enforcement decisions based on traditional antitrust principles, including the consumer welfare standard;
  2. Only conduct that would violate the antitrust rule of reason will give rise to enforcement, and the Commission will not bring UMC cases without evidence demonstrating that harm to competition outweighs any efficiency or business justifications for the conduct at issue; and
  3. The Commission commits to the principle that it is more appropriate to bring cases under the antitrust laws than under Section 5 when the conduct at issue could give rise to a cause of action under the antitrust laws. Notably, this doesn’t mean that the agency gets to use UMC when it thinks it might lose under the Sherman or Clayton Acts; rather, it means UMC is meant only to be a gap-filler, to be used when the antitrust statutes don’t apply at all.

Yes, the Statement is a compromise. For instance, there is no safe harbor from UMC enforcement if any cognizable efficiencies are demonstrated, as Commissioner Wright initially proposed.

But by enshrining antitrust law’s consumer welfare standard in future UMC caselaw, by obligating the Commission to assess conduct within the framework of the well-established antitrust rule of reason, and by prioritizing antitrust over UMC when both might apply, the Statement brings UMC law into the world of modern antitrust analysis. This is a huge achievement.

It’s also a huge achievement that a Statement like this one would be introduced by Chairwoman Ramirez. As recently as last year, Ramirez had resisted efforts to impose constraints on the FTC’s UMC enforcement discretion. In a 2014 speech Ramirez said:

I have expressed concern about recent proposals to formulate guidance to try to codify our unfair methods principles for the first time in the Commission’s 100 year history. While I don’t object to guidance in theory, I am less interested in prescribing our future enforcement actions than in describing our broad enforcement principles revealed in our recent precedent.

The “recent precedent” that Ramirez referred to is precisely the set of cases applying UMC to reach antitrust-relevant conduct that led to Commissioner Wright’s efforts. The common law of consent decrees that make up the precedent Ramirez refers to, of course, are not legally binding and provide little more than regurgitated causes of action.

But today, under Congressional pressure and pressure from within the agency led by Commissioner Wright, Chairwoman Ramirez and the other two Democratic commissioners voted for the Statement.

Competitive Effects Analysis Under the Statement

As Commissioner Ohlhausen argues in her dissenting statement, the UMC Statement doesn’t remove all enforcement discretion from the Commission — after all, enforcement principles, like standards in law generally, have fuzzy boundaries.

But what Commissioner Ohlhausen seems to miss is that, by invoking antitrust principles, the rule of reason and competitive effects analysis, the Statement incorporates by reference 125 years of antitrust law and economics. The Statement itself need not go into excessive detail when, with only a few words, it brings modern antitrust jurisprudence embodied in cases like Trinko, Leegin, and Brooke Group into UMC law.

Under the new rule of reason approach for UMC, the FTC will condemn conduct only when it causes or is likely to cause “harm to competition or the competitive process, taking into account any associated cognizable efficiencies and business justifications.” In other words, the evidence must demonstrate net harm to consumers before the FTC can take action. That’s a significant constraint.

As noted above, Commissioner Wright originally proposed a safe harbor from FTC UMC enforcement whenever cognizable efficiencies are present. The Statement’s balancing test is thus a compromise. But it’s not really a big move from Commissioner Wright’s initial position.

Commissioner Wright’s original proposal tied the safe harbor to “cognizable” efficiencies, which is an exacting standard. As Commissioner Wright noted in his Blog Symposium post on the subject:

[T]he efficiencies screen I offer intentionally leverages the Commission’s considerable expertise in identifying the presence of cognizable efficiencies in the merger context and explicitly ties the analysis to the well-developed framework offered in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines. As any antitrust practitioner can attest, the Commission does not credit “cognizable efficiencies” lightly and requires a rigorous showing that the claimed efficiencies are merger-specific, verifiable, and not derived from an anticompetitive reduction in output or service. Fears that the efficiencies screen in the Section 5 context would immunize patently anticompetitive conduct because a firm nakedly asserts cost savings arising from the conduct without evidence supporting its claim are unwarranted. Under this strict standard, the FTC would almost certainly have no trouble demonstrating no cognizable efficiencies exist in Dan’s “blowing up of the competitor’s factory” example because the very act of sabotage amounts to an anticompetitive reduction in output.

The difference between the safe harbor approach and the balancing approach embodied in the Statement is largely a function of administrative economy. Before, the proposal would have caused the FTC to err on the side of false negatives, possibly forbearing from bringing some number of welfare-enhancing cases in exchange for a more certain reduction in false positives. Now, there is greater chance of false positives.

But the real effect is that more cases will be litigated because, in the end, both versions would require some degree of antitrust-like competitive effects analysis. Under the Statement, if procompetitive efficiencies outweigh anticompetitive harms, the defendant still wins (and the FTC is to avoid enforcement). Under the original proposal fewer actions might be brought, but those that are brought would surely settle. So one likely outcome of choosing a balancing test over the safe harbor is that more close cases will go to court to be sorted out. Whether this is a net improvement over the safe harbor depends on whether the social costs of increased litigation and error are offset by a reduction in false negatives — as well as the more robust development of the public good of legal case law.  

Reduced FTC Discretion Under the Statement

The other important benefit of the Statement is that it commits the FTC to a regime that reduces its discretion.

Chairwoman Ramirez and former Chairman Leibowitz — among others — have embraced a broader role for Section 5, particularly in order to avoid the judicial limits on antitrust actions arising out of recent Supreme Court cases like Trinko, Leegin, Brooke Group, Linkline, Weyerhaeuser and Credit Suisse.

For instance, as former Chairman Leibowitz said in 2008:

[T]he Commission should not be tied to the more technical definitions of consumer harm that limit applications of the Sherman Act when we are looking at pure Section 5 violations.

And this was no idle threat. Recent FTC cases, including Intel, N-Data, Google (Motorola), and Bosch, could all have been brought under the Sherman Act, but were brought — and settled — as Section 5 cases instead. Under the new Statement, all four would likely be Sherman Act cases.

There’s little doubt that, left unfettered, Section 5 UMC actions would only have grown in scope. Former Chairman Leibowitz, in his concurring opinion in Rambus, described UMC as

a flexible and powerful Congressional mandate to protect competition from unreasonable restraints, whether long-since recognized or newly discovered, that violate the antitrust laws, constitute incipient violations of those laws, or contravene those laws’ fundamental policies.

Both Leibowitz and former Commissioner Tom Rosch (again, among others) often repeated their views that Section 5 permitted much the same actions as were available under Section 2 — but without the annoyance of those pesky, economically sensible, judicial limitations. (Although, in fairness, Leibowitz also once commented that it would not “be wise to use the broader [Section 5] authority whenever we think we can’t win an antitrust case, as a sort of ‘fallback.’”)

In fact, there is a long and unfortunate trend of FTC commissioners and other officials asserting some sort of “public enforcement exception” to the judicial limits on Sherman Act cases. As then Deputy Director for Antitrust in the Bureau of Economics, Howard Shelanski, told Congress in 2010:

The Commission believes that its authority to prevent “unfair methods of competition” through Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act enables the agency to pursue conduct that it cannot reach under the Sherman Act, and thus avoid the potential strictures of Trinko.

In this instance, and from the context (followed as it is by a request for Congress to actually exempt the agency from Trinko and Credit Suisse!), it seems that “reach” means “win.”

Still others have gone even further. Tom Rosch, for example, has suggested that the FTC should challenge Patent Assertion Entities under Section 5 merely because “we have a gut feeling” that the conduct violates the Act and it may not be actionable under Section 2.

Even more egregious, Steve Salop and Jon Baker advocate using Section 5 to implement their preferred social policies — in this case to reduce income inequality. Such expansionist views, as Joe Sims recently reminded TOTM readers, hearken back to the troubled FTC of the 1970s:  

Remember [former FTC Chairman] Mike Pertschuck saying that Section 5 could possibly be used to enforce compliance with desirable energy policies or environmental requirements, or to attack actions that, in the opinion of the FTC majority, impeded desirable employment programs or were inconsistent with the nation’s “democratic, political and social ideals.” The two speeches he delivered on this subject in 1977 were the beginning of the end for increased Section 5 enforcement in that era, since virtually everyone who heard or read them said:  “Whoa! Is this really what we want the FTC to be doing?”

Apparently, for some, it is — even today. But don’t forget: This was the era in which Congress actually briefly shuttered the FTC for refusing to recognize limits on its discretion, as Howard Beales reminds us:

The breadth, overreaching, and lack of focus in the FTC’s ambitious rulemaking agenda outraged many in business, Congress, and the media. Even the Washington Post editorialized that the FTC had become the “National Nanny.” Most significantly, these concerns reverberated in Congress. At one point, Congress refused to provide the necessary funding, and simply shut down the FTC for several days…. So great were the concerns that Congress did not reauthorize the FTC for fourteen years. Thus chastened, the Commission abandoned most of its rulemaking initiatives, and began to re-examine unfairness to develop a focused, injury-based test to evaluate practices that were allegedly unfair.

A truly significant effect of the Policy Statement will be to neutralize the effort to use UMC to make an end-run around antitrust jurisprudence in order to pursue non-economic goals. It will now be a necessary condition of a UMC enforcement action to prove a contravention of fundamental antitrust policies (i.e., consumer welfare), rather than whatever three commissioners happen to agree is a desirable goal. And the Statement puts the brakes on efforts to pursue antitrust cases under Section 5 by expressing a clear policy preference at the FTC to bring such cases under the antitrust laws.

Commissioner Ohlhausen’s objects that

the fact that this policy statement requires some harm to competition does little to constrain the Commission, as every Section 5 theory pursued in the last 45 years, no matter how controversial or convoluted, can be and has been couched in terms of protecting competition and/or consumers.

That may be true, but the same could be said of every Section 2 case, as well. Commissioner Ohlhausen seems to be dismissing the fact that the Statement effectively incorporates by reference the last 45 years of antitrust law, too. Nothing will incentivize enforcement targets to challenge the FTC in court — or incentivize the FTC itself to forbear from enforcement — like the ability to argue Trinko, Leegin and their ilk. Antitrust law isn’t perfect, of course, but making UMC law coextensive with modern antitrust law is about as much as we could ever reasonably hope for. And the Statement basically just gave UMC defendants blanket license to add a string of “See Areeda & Hovenkamp” cites to every case the FTC brings. We should count that as a huge win.

Commissioner Ohlhausen also laments the brevity and purported vagueness of the Statement, claiming that

No interpretation of the policy statement by a single Commissioner, no matter how thoughtful, will bind this or any future Commission to greater limits on Section 5 UMC enforcement than what is in this exceedingly brief, highly general statement.

But, in the end, it isn’t necessarily the Commissioners’ self-restraint upon which the Statement relies; it’s the courts’ (and defendants’) ability to take the obvious implications of the Statement seriously and read current antitrust precedent into future UMC cases. If every future UMC case is adjudicated like a Sherman or Clayton Act case, the Statement will have been a resounding success.

Arguably no FTC commissioner has been as successful in influencing FTC policy as a minority commissioner — over sustained opposition, and in a way that constrains the agency so significantly — as has Commissioner Wright today.