Archives For Jonathan Kanter

Some may refer to this as the Roundup Formerly Known as the FTC Roundup. If you recorded yourself while reading out loud, and your name is Dove, that is what it sounds like when doves sigh. 

Maybe He Never Said ‘Never’

The U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division recently agreed to settle its challenge of Swedish conglomerate Assa Abloy’s proposed acquisition of the hardware and home-improvement division of Spectrum Brands.Assa Abloy will divest certain assets as a condition of settling the case and consummating the merger.

That’s of interest to those following residential-door-hardware markets—about which I know very little, although I have purchased such hardware on occasion—but it’s also of interest because Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter, who heads the division, has (like Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan) repeatedly decried settling merger cases. He has said he is “concerned that merger remedies short of blocking a transaction too often miss the mark” and that he believes “[o]ur goal is simple: we must be prepared to try cases to a verdict when we think a violation has taken place.”

More colorfully: “I’m here to declare that we’re not part of the chickenshit club.” À la Groucho Marx, he doesn’t want to belong to any club that will accept him as a member. 

There has, at least sometimes, been a caveat: “[o]ur duty is to litigate, not settle, unless a remedy fully prevents or restrains the violation.” So maybe it was a line in the sand, but not cast in stone. Or maybe it wasn’t exactly a line.

And while I never really followed the “losing is winning” rhetoric (never uttered by a high school coach in any sport anywhere), I do understand that a tie is often preferable to a loss, and that settling can even be a win-win. Perhaps even when you (say, the DOJ, for example) basically agree to the settlement proposed by the other side. 

Of Orphans and Potential Competition

All this reminds me of the “open offer” in the Illumina/Grail matter over at the FTC, which was puzzled over here, there, and nearly everywhere. More recently, the FTC has filed suit to block Amgen’s acquisition of Horizon Therapeutics, which the commission announced with a press release bearing the headline: “FTC Sues to Block Biopharmaceutical Giant Amgen from Acquisition that Would Entrench Monopoly Drugs Used to Treat Two Serious Illnesses.”

Or, as others might call it, “if you think the complaint in Illumina/Grail was speculative, take a look at this.” 

At stake are Horizon’s drugs Tepezza (used to treat thyroid eye disease) and Krystexxa (used to treat chronic refractory gout). Both are designated as “orphan drugs,” which means they treat rare conditions and enjoy various tax and regulatory benefits as a result. And as the FTC correctly notes: “[n]either of these treatments have any competition in the pharmaceutical marketplace.” That is, the patient population for each drug is fairly small, but for those who have thyroid eye disease or chronic refractory gout, there are no substitutes. Patients might well benefit from greater competition.

Given that these are currently monopoly products, the FTC cannot worry about future harm to an otherwise competitive market. Amgen has no drugs in head-to-head competition with either Tepezza or Krystexxa, and neither does any other biologics or pharmaceutical firm. And there’s no allegation of unearned market power—Tepezza and Krystexxa are approved products, and there’s no allegation that their approval or marketing has been anything other than lawful. Market power is not supposed to change with the acquisition. Certainly not on day one, or on any day soon.

Rather, there’s a concern that Amgen will (allegedly) be likely to engage in conduct that harms competition that’s expected to develop, at some time or other. The complaint alleges that Amgen will be likely to leverage its other products in such a way as to “raise… [their] rivals’ barriers to entry or dissuade them from competing as aggressively if and when they gain FDA approval.” The most likely route to this, according to the FTC complaint, would be to exploit bargaining leverage with pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) to secure favorable placement in the formularies that PBMs design for various health plans.  

Perhaps. The evidence suggests that most vertical mergers are procompetitive, but a vertically integrated firm can have an incentive to foreclose rivals, which may or may not lead to a net loss to competition and consumers, depending on the facts and circumstances.

But then there’s the “if and when” part. We don’t really know what the relevant facts and circumstances are—not from the public documents, at any rate. We are told that the Tepezza and Krystexxa monopolies will “not last forever,” but we’re not told who will enter when. There’s also no clear suggestion as to how a combined Amgen/Horizon could foreclose the development of a would-be competitor. Neither firm controls a critical input, would-be rivals’ clinical trials, or the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval process.

As for potential future competition, the large PBMs are not unsophisticated bargainers or lacking in leverage of their own. Hence, the FTC’s much-ballyhooed PBM investigations
On the one hand, there’s typically some forward-looking aspect to merger analysis: what would competition look like, but for the merger? On the other hand, as Niels Bohr and Yogi Berra have variously observed: “It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” Some predictions are harder than others, and some are just shots in the dark. As former FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright observed in his dissent in Nielsen Holdings, grounded…

…predictions about the evolution of a market [are] based upon a fact-intensive analysis …. when assessing whether future entry would counteract a proposed transaction’s competitive concerns, the agencies evaluate a number of facts—such as the history of entry in the relevant market and the costs a future entrant would need to incur to be able to compete effectively—to determine whether entry is “timely, likely, and sufficient.”

That was hard to do in Nielsen. It was hard to do (and the commission failed to do it) in the Meta/Within case. And it’s hard to do when we’re dealing with complex molecule products, when entry must clear significant regulatory hurdles, and when we have no clinical data establishing (or even, based on which, we might estimate) the approval and entry of any particular competing product in some specified timeframe. 

Drugs in late-stage development may be far enough along in the approval process that one can reasonably predict approval and entry in a year or two. Not with any certainty, of course. Things happen. But predictions can be made with some confidence, at least when it comes to simple molecule pharmaceutical drugs (as opposed to biologics) and perhaps with drugs already approved by foreign regulators based on substantial clinical trials. But this is not that. There are potential rivals in the developmental pathway, but there seem to be zero reported results. None. That is, none reported by the FDA, where it reports such things and none mentioned in the FTC’s complaint. So we seem to lack the sort of data that might facilitate a reasonable prediction about the particulars of future entry, should it occur. 

Nobody is poised to enter the market and there is no clear near-term entrant, but for one. As the complaint explains:

Horizon is currently developing a subcutaneously administered version of Tepezza, which it estimates will receive FDA approval. … The planned introduction of this subcutaneous Tepezza formulation promises to further lower Amgen’s logistical and economic barriers to establishing multi-product contracts between its pharmacy benefit products, like Enbrel, and Tepezza. 

Perhaps, but surely that’s a double-edged sword for the FTC’s complaint, at best. Amgen’s stock of blockbusters—the alleged source of their leverage, should push come to shove—would not be affected. And there’s no reason to think (and no allegation) that Amgen would not continue the development of a new form of delivery for Tepezza.

The complaint maintains that “[t]here are no countervailing factors sufficient to offset the likelihood of competitive harm from the Proposed Acquisition.” But we have no idea how to estimate the risk that’s supposed to be offset. Certainly, the complaint doesn’t tell us and the complaint itself hinted at potentially offsetting factors in the very same paragraph: research, development, and marketing efficiencies, as well as the possibility of lower regulatory costs, courtesy of Amgen’s pockets, sophistication, and experience. If the subcutaneous Tepezza product could be brought to market sooner, and/or marketed more effectively, consumers wouldn’t be harmed. They would benefit. 

It seems we really have no idea what future competition might or might not look like two or three years down the road, or four or five. Indeed, it’s not clear when or whether a rival to either drug will be approved for marketing in the United States, whether Amgen (or Horizon) attempts to erect barriers to entry or not. Moreover, there’s no obvious route by which Amgen can impede the development of rival products. Is the FTC estimating a risk of harm to competition or guessing?

Statisticians (and economists) distinguish between Type 1 and Type 2 errors, false positives and false negatives respectively. There’s ongoing debate over the question whether the current state of the law pays too much attention to the risk of false positives, and not enough to the risk of false negatives. Be that as it may, there are very real costs when procompetitive mergers are wrongly identified as anticompetitive and blocked accordingly.

The perfect no-false-negatives strategy of “block all mergers” (or all where there’s a non-zero risk of competitive harm) cannot be adopted for free. That ought to be plain in the case of drug development (and, say, the type of cancer tests at issue in Illumina/Grail). The population of consumers comprises patients and payers; delay the benefits of efficient mergers, and patients are harmed. A complaint is just that, but does the FTC’s complaint show that harm is likely on any particular time frame, or simply possible at some point?

Looking back at the past 25 years, one might view the FTC’s attention to mergers in the health-care sector as a model of research-based enforcement, with important contributions from the Bureau of Economics and the policy shop, in addition to those of enforcers in the Bureau of Competition. That was a nice view; I miss it.

More later, but there was this, too.

Spring is here, and hope springs eternal in the human breast that competition enforcers will focus on welfare-enhancing initiatives, rather than on welfare-reducing interventionism that fails the consumer welfare standard.

Fortuitously, on March 27, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) are hosting an international antitrust-enforcement summit, featuring senior state and foreign antitrust officials (see here). According to an FTC press release, “FTC Chair Lina M. Khan and DOJ Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter, as well as senior staff from both agencies, will facilitate discussions on complex challenges in merger and unilateral conduct enforcement in digital and transitional markets.”

I suggest that the FTC and DOJ shelve that topic, which is the focus of endless white papers and regular enforcement-oriented conversations among competition-agency staffers from around the world. What is there for officials to learn? (Perhaps they could discuss the value of curbing “novel” digital-market interventions that undermine economic efficiency and innovation, but I doubt that this important topic would appear on the agenda.)

Rather than tread familiar enforcement ground (albeit armed with novel legal theories that are known to their peers), the FTC and DOJ instead should lead an international dialogue on applying agency resources to strengthen competition advocacy and to combat anticompetitive market distortions. Such initiatives, which involve challenging government-generated impediments to competition, would efficiently and effectively promote the Biden administration’s “whole of government” approach to competition policy.

Competition Advocacy

The World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have jointly described the role and importance of competition advocacy:

[C]ompetition may be lessened significantly by various public policies and institutional arrangements as well [as by private restraints]. Indeed, private restrictive business practices are often facilitated by various government interventions in the marketplace. Thus, the mandate of the competition office extends beyond merely enforcing the competition law. It must also participate more broadly in the formulation of its country’s economic policies, which may adversely affect competitive market structure, business conduct, and economic performance. It must assume the role of competition advocate, acting proactively to bring about government policies that lower barriers to entry, promote deregulation and trade liberalization, and otherwise minimize unnecessary government intervention in the marketplace.

The FTC and DOJ have a proud history of competition-advocacy initiatives. In an article exploring the nature and history of FTC advocacy efforts, FTC scholars James Cooper, Paul Pautler, & Todd Zywicki explained:

Competition advocacy, broadly, is the use of FTC expertise in competition, economics, and consumer protection to persuade governmental actors at all levels of the political system and in all branches of government to design policies that further competition and consumer choice. Competition advocacy often takes the form of letters from the FTC staff or the full Commission to an interested regulator, but also consists of formal comments and amicus curiae briefs.

Cooper, Pautler, & Zywicki also provided guidance—derived from an evaluation of FTC public-interest interventions—on how advocacy initiatives can be designed to maximize their effectiveness.

During the Trump administration, the FTC’s Economic Liberty Task Force shone its advocacy spotlight on excessive state occupational-licensing restrictions that create unwarranted entry barriers and distort competition in many lines of work. (The Obama administration in 2016 issued a report on harms to workers that stem from excessive occupational licensing, but it did not accord substantial resources to advocacy efforts in this area.)

Although its initiatives in this area have been overshadowed in recent decades by the FTC, DOJ over the years also has filed a large number of competition-advocacy comments with federal and state entities.

Anticompetitive Market Distortions (ACMDs)

ACMDs refer to government-imposed restrictions on competition. These distortions may take the form of distortions of international competition (trade distortions), distortions of domestic competition, or distortions of property-rights protection (that with which firms compete). Distortions across any of these pillars could have a negative effect on economic growth. (See here.)

Because they enjoy state-backed power and the force of law, ACMDs cannot readily be dislodged by market forces over time, unlike purely private restrictions. What’s worse, given the role that governments play in facilitating them, ACMDs often fall outside the jurisdictional reach of both international trade laws and domestic competition laws.

The OECD’s Competition Assessment Toolkit sets forth four categories of regulatory restrictions that distort competition. Those are provisions that:

  1. limit the number or range of providers;
  2. limit the ability of suppliers to compete;
  3. reduce the incentive of suppliers to compete; and that
  4. limit the choices and information available to consumers.

When those categories explicitly or implicitly favor domestic enterprises over foreign enterprises, they may substantially distort international trade and investment decisions, to the detriment of economic efficiency and consumer welfare in multiple jurisdictions.

Given the non-negligible extraterritorial impact of many ACMDs, directing the attention of foreign competition agencies to the ACMD problem would be a particularly efficient use of time at gatherings of peer competition agencies from around the world. Peer competition agencies could discuss strategies to convince their governments to phase out or limit the scope of ACMDs.

The collective action problem that may prevent any one jurisdiction from acting unilaterally to begin dismantling its ACMDs might be addressed through international trade negotiations (perhaps, initially, plurilateral negotiations) aimed at creating ACMD remedies in trade treaties. (Shanker Singham has written about crafting trade remedies to deal with ACMDs—see here, for example.) Thus, strategies whereby national competition agencies could “pull in” their fellow national trade agencies to combat ACMDs merit exploration. Why not start the ball rolling at next week’s international antitrust-enforcement summit? (Hint, why not pull in a bunch of DOJ and FTC economists, who may feel underappreciated and underutilized at this time, to help out?)


If the Biden administration truly wants to strengthen the U.S. economy by bolstering competitive forces, the best way to do that would be to reallocate a substantial share of antitrust-enforcement resources to competition-advocacy efforts and the dismantling of ACMDs.

In order to have maximum impact, such efforts should be backed by a revised “whole of government” initiative – perhaps embodied in a new executive order. That new order should urge federal agencies (including the “independent” agencies that exercise executive functions) to cooperate with the DOJ and FTC in rooting out and repealing anticompetitive regulations (including ACMDs that undermine competition by distorting trade flows).

The DOJ and FTC should also be encouraged by the executive order to step up their advocacy efforts at the state level. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) could be pulled in to help identify ACMDs, and the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office (USTR), with DOJ and FTC economic assistance, could start devising an anti-ACMD negotiating strategy.

In addition, the FTC and DOJ should directly urge foreign competition agencies to engage in relatively more competition advocacy. The U.S. agencies should simultaneously push to make competition-advocacy promotion a much higher International Competition Network priority (see here for the ICN Advocacy Working Group’s 2022-2025 Work Plan). The FTC and DOJ could simultaneously encourage their competition-agency peers to work with their fellow trade agencies (USTR’s peer bureaucracies) to devise anti-ACMD negotiating strategies.

These suggestions may not quite be ripe for meetings to be held in a few days. But if the administration truly believes in an all-of-government approach to competition, and is truly committed to multilateralism, these recommendations should be right up its alley. There will be plenty of bilateral and plurilateral trade and competition-agency meetings (not to mention the World Bank, OECD, and other multilateral gatherings) in the next year or so at which these sensible, welfare-enhancing suggestions could be advanced. After all, “hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

At the Jan. 26 Policy in Transition forum—the Mercatus Center at George Mason University’s second annual antitrust forum—various former and current antitrust practitioners, scholars, judges, and agency officials held forth on the near-term prospects for the neo-Brandeisian experiment undertaken in recent years by both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ). In conjunction with the forum, Mercatus also released a policy brief on 2022’s significant antitrust developments.

Below, I summarize some of the forum’s noteworthy takeaways, followed by concluding comments on the current state of the antitrust enterprise, as reflected in forum panelists’ remarks.


    1. The consumer welfare standard is neither a recent nor an arbitrary antitrust-enforcement construct, and it should not be abandoned in order to promote a more “enlightened” interventionist antitrust.

George Mason University’s Donald Boudreaux emphasized in his introductory remarks that the standard goes back to Adam Smith, who noted in “The Wealth of Nations” nearly 250 years ago that the appropriate end of production is the consumer’s benefit. Moreover, American Antitrust Institute President Diana Moss, a leading proponent of more aggressive antitrust enforcement, argued in standalone remarks against abandoning the consumer welfare standard, as it is sufficiently flexible to justify a more interventionist agenda.

    1. The purported economic justifications for a far more aggressive antitrust-enforcement policy on mergers remain unconvincing.

Moss’ presentation expressed skepticism about vertical-merger efficiencies and called for more aggressive challenges to such consolidations. But Boudreaux skewered those arguments in a recent four-point rebuttal at Café Hayek. As he explains, Moss’ call for more vertical-merger enforcement ignores the fact that “no one has stronger incentives than do the owners and managers of firms to detect and achieve possible improvements in operating efficiencies – and to avoid inefficiencies.”

Moss’ complaint about chronic underenforcement mistakes by overly cautious agencies also ignores the fact that there will always be mistakes, and there is no reason to believe “that antitrust bureaucrats and courts are in a position to better predict the future [regarding which efficiencies claims will be realized] than are firm owners and managers.” Moreover, Moss provided “no substantive demonstration or evidence that vertical mergers often lead to monopolization of markets – that is, to industry structures and practices that harm consumers. And so even if vertical mergers never generate efficiencies, there is no good argument to use antitrust to police such mergers.”

And finally, Boudreaux considers Moss’ complaint that a court refused to condemn the AT&T-Time Warner merger, arguing that this does not demonstrate that antitrust enforcement is deficient:

[A]s soon as the  . . . merger proved to be inefficient, the parties themselves undid it. This merger was undone by competitive market forces and not by antitrust! (Emphasis in the original.)

    1. The agencies, however, remain adamant in arguing that merger law has been badly unenforced. As such, the new leadership plans to charge ahead and be willing to challenge more mergers based on mere market structure, paying little heed to efficiency arguments or actual showings of likely future competitive harm.

In her afternoon remarks at the forum, Principal Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Antitrust Doha Mekki highlighted five major planks of Biden administration merger enforcement going forward.

  • Clayton Act Section 7 is an incipiency statute. Thus, “[w]hen a [mere] change in market structure suggests that a firm will have an incentive to reduce competition, that should be enough [to justify a challenge].”
  • “Once we see that a merger may lead to, or increase, a firm’s market power, only in very rare circumstances should we think that a firm will not exercise that power.”
  • A structural presumption “also helps businesses conform their conduct to the law with more confidence about how the agencies will view a proposed merger or conduct.”
  • Efficiencies defenses will be given short shrift, and perhaps ignored altogether. This is because “[t]he Clayton Act does not ask whether a merger creates a more or less efficient firm—it asks about the effect of the merger on competition. The Supreme Court has never recognized efficiencies as a defense to an otherwise illegal merger.”
  • Merger settlements have often failed to preserve competition, and they will be highly disfavored. Therefore, expect a lot more court challenges to mergers than in recent decades. In short, “[w]e must be willing to litigate. . . . [W]e need to acknowledge the possibility that sometimes a court might not agree with us—and yet go to court anyway.”

Mekki’s comments suggest to me that the soon-to-be-released new draft merger guidelines may emphasize structural market-share tests, generally reject efficiencies justifications, and eschew the economic subtleties found in the current guidelines.

    1. The agencies—and the FTC, in particular—have serious institutional problems that undermine their effectiveness, and risk a loss of credibility before the courts in the near future.

In his address to the forum, former FTC Chairman Bill Kovacic lamented the inefficient limitations on reasoned FTC deliberations imposed by the Sunshine Act, which chills informal communications among commissioners. He also pointed to our peculiarly unique global status of having two enforcers with duplicative antitrust authority, and lamented the lack of policy coherence, which reflects imperfect coordination between the agencies.

Perhaps most importantly, Kovacic raised the specter of the FTC losing credibility in a possible world where Humphrey’s Executor is overturned (see here) and the commission is granted little judicial deference. He suggested taking lessons on policy planning and formulation from foreign enforcers—the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority, in particular. He also decried agency officials’ decisions to belittle prior administrations’ enforcement efforts, seeing it as detracting from the international credibility of U.S. enforcement.

    1. The FTC is embarking on a novel interventionist path at odds with decades of enforcement policy.

In luncheon remarks, Commissioner Christine S. Wilson lamented the lack of collegiality and consultation within the FTC. She warned that far-reaching rulemakings and other new interventionist initiatives may yield a backlash that undermines the institution.

Following her presentation, a panel of FTC experts discussed several aspects of the commission’s “new interventionism.” According to one panelist, the FTC’s new Section 5 Policy Statement on Unfair Methods of Competition (which ties “unfairness” to arbitrary and subjective terms) “will not survive in” (presumably, will be given no judicial deference by) the courts. Another panelist bemoaned rule-of-law problems arising from FTC actions, called for consistency in FTC and DOJ enforcement policies, and warned that the new merger guidelines will represent a “paradigm shift” that generates more business uncertainty.

The panel expressed doubts about the legal prospects for a proposed FTC rule on noncompete agreements, and noted that constitutional challenges to the agency’s authority may engender additional difficulties for the commission.

    1. The DOJ is greatly expanding its willingness to litigate, and is taking actions that may undermine its credibility in court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Antitrust Jonathan Kanter has signaled a disinclination to settle, as well as an eagerness to litigate large numbers of cases (toward that end, he has hired a huge number of litigators). One panelist noted that, given this posture from the DOJ, there is a risk that judges may come to believe that the department’s litigation decisions are not well-grounded in the law and the facts. The business community may also have a reduced willingness to “buy in” to DOJ guidance.

Panelists also expressed doubts about the wisdom of DOJ bringing more “criminal Sherman Act Section 2” cases. The Sherman Act is a criminal statute, but the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of criminal law and Due Process concerns may arise. Panelists also warned that, if new merger guidelines are ”unsound,” they may detract from the DOJ’s credibility in federal court.

    1. International antitrust developments have introduced costly new ex ante competition-regulation and enforcement-coordination problems.

As one panelist explained, the European Union’s implementation of the new Digital Markets Act (DMA) will harmfully undermine market forces. The DMA is a form of ex ante regulation—primarily applicable to large U.S. digital platforms—that will harmfully interject bureaucrats into network planning and design. The DMA will lead to inefficiencies, market fragmentation, and harm to consumers, and will inevitably have spillover effects outside Europe.

Even worse, the DMA will not displace the application of EU antitrust law, but merely add to its burdens. Regrettably, the DMA’s ex ante approach is being imitated by many other enforcement regimes, and the U.S. government tacitly supports it. The DMA has not been included in the U.S.-EU joint competition dialogue, which risks failure. Canada and the U.K. should also be added to the dialogue.

Other International Concerns

The international panelists also noted that there is an unfortunate lack of convergence on antitrust procedures. Furthermore, different jurisdictions manifest substantial inconsistencies in their approaches to multinational merger analysis, where better coordination is needed. There is a special problem in the areas of merger review and of criminal leniency for price fixers: when multiple jurisdictions need to “sign off” on an enforcement matter, the “most restrictive” jurisdiction has an effective veto.

Finally, former Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Antitrust James Rill—perhaps the most influential promoter of the adoption of sound antitrust laws worldwide—closed the international panel with a call for enhanced transnational cooperation. He highlighted the importance of global convergence on sound antitrust procedures, emphasizing due process. He also advocated bolstering International Competition Network (ICN) and OECD Competition Committee convergence initiatives, and explained that greater transparency in agency-enforcement actions is warranted. In that regard, Rill said, ICN nongovernmental advisers should be given a greater role.


Taken as a whole, the forum’s various presentations painted a rather gloomy picture of the short-term prospects for sound, empirically based, economics-centric antitrust enforcement.

In the United States, the enforcement agencies are committed to far more aggressive antitrust enforcement, particularly with respect to mergers. The agencies’ new approach downplays efficiencies and they will be quick to presume broad categories of business conduct are anticompetitive, relying far less closely on case-specific economic analysis.

The outlook is also bad overseas, as European Union enforcers are poised to implement new ex ante regulation of competition by large platforms as an addition to—not a substitute for—established burdensome antitrust enforcement. Most foreign jurisdictions appear to be following the European lead, and the U.S. agencies are doing nothing to discourage them. Indeed, they appear to fully support the European approach.

The consumer welfare standard, which until recently was the stated touchstone of American antitrust enforcement—and was given at least lip service in Europe—has more or less been set aside. The one saving grace in the United States is that the federal courts may put a halt to the agencies’ overweening ambitions, but that will take years. In the meantime, consumer welfare will suffer and welfare-enhancing business conduct will be disincentivized. The EU courts also may place a minor brake on European antitrust expansionism, but that is less certain.

Recall, however, that when evils flew out of Pandora’s box, hope remained. Let us hope, then, that the proverbial worm will turn, and that new leadership—inspired by hopeful and enlightened policy advocates—will restore principled antitrust grounded in the promotion of consumer welfare.

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.


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.