Recently departed Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Noah Phillips has been rightly praised as “a powerful voice during his four-year tenure at the FTC, advocating for rational antitrust enforcement and against populist antitrust that derails the fair yet disruptive process of competition.” The FTC will miss his trenchant analysis and collegiality, now that he has departed for the greener pastures of private practice.
A particularly noteworthy example of Phillips’ mastery of his craft is presented by his November 2018 dissent from the FTC’s majority opinion in the 1-800 Contacts case, which presented tricky questions about the proper scope of antitrust intervention in contracts designed to protect intellectual property rights. (For more on the opinion, see Geoffrey A. Manne, Hal Singer, and Joshua D. Wright’s December 2018 piece.)
Phillips’ dissent—vindicated by a June 2021 decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacating the commission’s order—merits close attention. (The circuit court also denied the FTC’s petition for a rehearing en banc in August 2021.)
The 1-800 Business Model and the FTC’s Proceedings
Before describing the 1-800 proceedings, Phillips’ dissent, and the judicial vindication of his position, we begin with a brief assessment of the welfare-enhancing innovative business model employed by 1-800 Contacts. The firm pioneered the online contact-lens sales business. It is an American entrepreneurial success story, which has bestowed great benefits on consumers through trademark-backed competition focusing on price and quality considerations. Phillips’ dissenting opinion explained:
Jonathan Coon started the business that would become 1-800 Contacts in 1992 from his college dormitory room with just $50 to his name, seeking to reduce prices, improve service, and provide a better customer experience for contact lens consumers. … Over the next 26 years he would succeed, building a company (and a brand) from essentially nothing to one of the largest contact lens retailers in the country, while introducing American consumers to mail-order contact lenses (and later ordering contacts online), driving down prices, and attracting competition from small and large companies alike. That growth required a combination of a massive investment in advertising and a constant quest to improve the customer experience. That is the type of conduct that antitrust and trademark law should, and do, encourage. …
As [the FTC administrative law judge] … found in the Initial Decision, “1-800 Contacts’ business objective from the company’s inception was to make the process of buying contact lenses simple and it tries to distinguish itself from other contact lens retailers by making it faster, easier, and more convenient to get contact lenses.” … This contrasts with other online contact lens retailers, which generally do not seek to distinguish themselves on the basis of customer experience, customer service, or simplicity. … 1-800 Contacts did not limit itself to competing on price because it found that many customers valued speed and convenience just as much as price. …
1-800 Contacts’ relentless investment in its brand and in improving its customer service are recognized. Many third parties—including J.D. Power and Associates, StellaService Elite, and Foresee—have recognized or given awards to 1-800 Contacts for its customer service. … But that has not stopped 1-800 Contacts from continuing to invest in improving its service to enhance the customer experience. …
The service and brand investments made by 1-800 Contacts have resulted in millions of consumers purchasing contact lenses from 1-800 Contacts over the phone and online. They are precisely the types of investments that trademark law exists to protect and encourage.
The 2nd Circuit summarized the actions by 1-800 Contacts (“Petitioner”) that prompted an FTC administrative complaint, then presented a brief history of the internal FTC proceedings:
In 2002, Petitioner began filing complaints and sending cease-and-desist letters to its competitors alleging trademark infringement related to its competitors’ online advertisements. Between 2004 and 2013, Petitioner entered into thirteen settlement agreements to resolve most of these disputes. Each of these agreements includes language that prohibits the parties from using each other’s trademarks, URLs, and variations of trademarks as search advertising keywords. The agreements also require the parties to employ negative keywords so that a search including one party’s trademarks will not trigger a display of the other party’s ads. The agreements do not prohibit parties from bidding on generic keywords such as “contacts” or “contact lenses.” Petitioner enforced the agreements when it perceived them to be breached.
Apart from the settlement agreements, in 2013 Petitioner entered into a “sourcing and services agreement” with Luxottica, a company that sells and distributes contacts through its affiliates. That agreement also contains reciprocal online search advertising restrictions prohibiting the use of trademark keywords and requiring both parties to employ negative keywords.
The FTC issued an administrative complaint against Petitioner in August 2016 alleging that the thirteen settlement agreements and the Luxottica agreement, … along with subsequent actions to enforce them, unreasonably restrain truthful, non-misleading advertising as well as price competition in search advertising auctions, all of which constitute a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45. The complaint alleges that the Challenged Agreements prevented Petitioner’s competitors from disseminating ads that would have informed consumers that the same contact lenses were available at a cheaper price from other online retailers, thereby reducing competition and making it more difficult for consumers to compare online retail prices. The case was tried before an ALJ, who concluded that a violation had occurred.
As an initial matter, the ALJ rejected Petitioner’s assertion that trademark settlement agreements are not subject to antitrust scrutiny in light of FTC v. Actavis, 570 U.S. 136 (2013). Applying the “rule of reason” and principles of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, the ALJ determined that “[o]nline sales of contact lenses constitute a relevant product market.” … He found that the agreements constituted a “contract, combination, or conspiracy” as required by the Sherman Act and held that the advertising restrictions in the agreements harmed consumers by reducing the availability of information, in turn making it costlier for consumers to find and compare contact lens prices. …
Having found actual anticompetitive effects, as required under the rule of reason analysis, the ALJ rejected the procompetitive justifications for the agreements offered by Petitioner. He found that while trademark protection is procompetitive, it did not justify the advertising restrictions in the agreements and also that Petitioner failed to show that reduced litigation costs would benefit consumers. The ALJ issued an order that barred Petitioner from entering into an agreement with any marketer or seller of contact lenses to limit participation in search advertising auctions or to prohibit or limit search advertising.
1-800 appealed the ALJ’s order to the Commission. In a split decision, a majority of the Commission agreed with the ALJ that the agreements violated Section 5 of the FTC Act. The majority, however, analyzed the settlement agreements differently from the ALJ. The majority classified the agreements as “inherently suspect” and alternatively found “direct evidence” of anticompetitive effects on consumers and search engines. The majority then analyzed the procompetitive justifications Petitioner offered for the agreements and rejected arguments that the benefits of protecting trademarks and reducing litigation costs outweighed any potential harm to consumers. Finally, the majority identified what it believed to be less anticompetitive alternatives to the advertising restrictions in the agreements. One Commissioner dissented, reasoning both that the majority should not have applied the “inherently suspect” framework and that it failed to give appropriate consideration to Petitioner’s proffered procompetitive justifications. This timely appeal followed.
Commissioner Phillips’ Dissent
Phillips meticulously made the case that 1-800 Contacts’ behavior raised no antitrust concerns.
First, he began by stressing that the settlements in question resolved legitimate trademark-infringement claims. The settlements also were limited in scope. They did not prevent any of the parties from engaging in any form of non-infringing advertising (online or offline), they specifically permitted non-infringing uses like comparative advertising and parodies, and they placed no restrictions on the content that any of the settling parties could include in their ads. In short, the settlements “sought to balance 1-800 Contacts’ legitimate interests in protecting its trademarks with competitors’ (and consumers’) interests in truthful advertising.
Second, he explained in detail why the FTC majority opinion failed to show that the trademark settlements were “inherently suspect.” He noted that the “[s]ettlements do not approximate conduct that the Commission or courts have previously found to be inherently suspect, much less illegal.” FTC complaint counsel had not demonstrated any output effects—the settlements permitted price and quality advertising, and did not affect third-party sellers. The Actavis Supreme Court refused to apply the inherently suspect framework “even though the alleged conduct at issue [reverse payments] was far more harmful to competition than anything at issue here, as well-established economic evidence demonstrated.”
Moreover, the majority opinion’s reliance on the FTC’s Polygram decision was misplaced, because the defendants in that case fixed prices and banned advertising (“[t]here is no price fixing here [n]or is there an advertising ban”). Other cases cited by the majority involving advertising restrictions similarly were inapposite, because they involved far greater restrictions on advertising and did not implicate intellectual property. Furthermore, “[t]he economic studies cited by the majority d[id] not examine paid search advertising, … much less how restraints upon it interact with the trademark policies at issue here.”
Third, he discussed at length why the majority should not have pursued a truncated rule-of-reason analysis. In short:
Applicable precedent makes clear that the Trademark Settlements should be analyzed under the traditional rule of reason. And the cases on which the majority rely fail to provide support for truncating that analysis by applying the “inherently suspect” framework. As noted, those cases do not involve trademarks, or intellectual property of any kind. That is relevant—indeed, decisive—because trademarks often limit advertising in one way or another, and the logic of the majority’s analysis would support a rule that stigmatizes conduct protecting those rights, which is clearly procompetitive, as presumptively unlawful.
Fourth, in addition to the legal infirmities, Phillips skillfully exposed the serious policy shortcomings of the majority’s “inherently suspect” approach:
Treating the Trademark Settlements as “inherently suspect” yields an unclear rule that regardless of interpretation, will, I fear, create uncertainty, dilute trademark rights, and dampen inter-brand competition. The majority couch their holding as a limited one dealing with restraints on the opportunity to make price comparisons, but, by adopting an analytical framework without accounting for the intellectual property at issue, they produce one of the following rules: either all advertising restrictions are inherently suspect, regardless whether they protect intellectual property rights, or the level of scrutiny applied to a particular restraint will depend on the strength of the trademark holder’s underlying infringement claim.
In his policy assessment, Phillips added that the policy favoring litigation settlements (due to the fact that, as a general matter, they promote efficiency) supports application of the traditional rule of reason.
Fifth, turning to the traditional rule of reason, Phillips explicated FTC complaint counsel’s failure to meet its burden of proof (case citations omitted):
If the Trademark Settlements are not “inherently suspect”, which they are not, Complaint Counsel can meet their initial burden of proof under the rule of reason in one of two ways: “an indirect showing based on a demonstration of defendant’s market power” or “direct evidence of ‘actual, sustained adverse effects on competition’” … The majority take only the direct approach; they do not attempt an indirect showing of market power. … To meet the initial burden of direct evidence, a plaintiff must show adverse effects on competition that are actual, sustained, and significant or substantial. … Complaint Counsel have not met that burden with its showing on direct effects.
In dealing with burden-of-proof issues, Phillips demonstrated that, in the context of a trademark-settlement agreement, a restriction on advertising is, by itself, insufficient to show direct effects. Phillips conceded that, “[w]hile restrictions on advertising are not themselves enough, the majority are correct that a showing of actual, sustained, and substantial or significant price effects would suffice.” But Phillips emphasized that the majority failed to show that the trademark settlements were responsible for “the fact that 1-800 Contacts’ prices were higher than some of its competitors’ prices.” Indeed, the record was “clear that that price differential predated the Trademark Settlements.” Furthermore, FTC complaint counsel “put forward no evidence that the price gap increased as a result of the Trademark Settlements.” What’s more, the FTC majority “did not adduce legally sufficient proof” that “1-800 Contacts maintained supracompetitive prices. … [T]he majority d[id] not even attempt to show that 1-800 Contacts’ price cost-margin was abnormally high—either before or after the Trademark Settlements.”
Phillips next focused on the substantial procompetitive justifications for 1-800’s conduct. (This was legally unnecessary, because the initial burden under the inherently suspect framework had not been met, direct effects had not been shown, and there had been no effort to show indirect effects.) These included settlement-related litigation-cost savings and enhanced trademark protections. Phillips stressed “the tremendous amount of investment 1-800 Contacts ha[d] made in building its brand, lowering the price of contact lenses, and offering customers superior service.”
After skillfully refuting the FTC majority’s novel separate theory that the settlements had anticompetitive effects on firms owning search engines (such as Google or Bing), Phillips skewered the FTC majority’s claim that the trademark settlements could have been narrower:
The searches that the Trademark Settlements prohibit[ed] [we[re] precisely those searches that implicate[d] 1-800 Contacts’ trademarks. They [we]re also the searches through which users [we]re most likely attempting to reach the 1-800 Contacts website (i.e., searches for 1-800 Contacts’ trademark). …
The settling parties included a negative keyword provision in response to Google’s explicit encouragement for 1-800 Contacts to resolve its trademark disputes with competitors by having them implement 1-800 Contacts’ trademarked terms as negative keywords. … They did so because, without negative keywords, a settling party’s advertisements could appear in response to searches for the counterparty’s trademarked terms.
Almost all of the Trademark Settlements balanced these restrictions with a provision explicitly permitting a settling party to use the counterparty’s trademarks in the non-internet context, including comparative advertising. …
As a result, … the Trademark Settlements were appropriately tailored to achieve their goal of preventing trademark infringement while balancing the need to permit non-infringing advertising.
Turning to the Luxottica servicing agreement, Phillips explained that the majority opinion mistakenly characterized it as just another inherently suspect settlement. Instead, it was an efficient sourcing and servicing agreement. Under the agreement, 1-800 Contacts shipped contacts for sale to Luxottica brick-and-mortar chain stores, and Luxottica also provided other services. Luxottica benefited by outsourcing its entire contact-lens business—including negotiating with contact-lens suppliers—to 1-800 Contacts. The majority failed to analyze the various procompetitive benefits stemming from this arrangement, which fit squarely within the FTC-U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) Competitor Collaboration Guidelines. In particular, for example, “[a]s a direct result of its decision to outsource much of its contact business to 1-800 Contacts, Luxottica customers could receive lower prices and better services (e.g., faster delivery).”
Phillips closed his dissent by highlighting the ineffectiveness of the FTC majority’s order, which “state[d] that the only agreements that 1-800 Contacts c[ould] enter [we]re those that, in effect, that t[old] the counterparty that they c[ould] [not] violate the trademark laws.” This unhelpful language “w[ould] only lead to more litigation to determine what conduct actually violated the trademark laws in the context of paid search advertising based on trademarked keywords. Because the Order only allow[ed] agreements that d[id] not actually resolve the dispute in trademark infringement litigation, it w[ould] reduce the incentive to settle, which, in turn, w[ould] lead to either less trademark enforcement or more costly litigation”.
Phillips concluding paragraph offered sound general advice about the limits of antitrust and the need to avoid a harmful lack of clarity in enforcement:
The Commission’s mandate is to enforce the antitrust laws, but we cannot do so in a vacuum. We need to consider competing policies, including federal trademark policy, when analyzing allegedly anticompetitive conduct. And we should recognize that unclear rules may do more harm both to that policy and to competition than the alleged conduct here. In the case of the Trademark Settlements, precedent offers a better way: the Commission should analyze such agreements under the full rule of reason, giving appropriate weight to the trademarks at issue and the value they protect. Such a rule will decrease uncertainty in the market, encourage brand investment, and increase competition.
The 2nd Circuit Rejects the FTC Majority’s Position
The 2nd Circuit rejected the FTC majority opinion and vacated commission’s order. First, it rejected the FTC’s reliance on a “quick look” analysis, stating:
Courts do not have sufficient experience with this type of conduct to permit the abbreviated analysis of the Challenged [trademark settlement] Agreements undertaken by the Commission. … When, as here, not only are there cognizable procompetitive justifications but also the type of restraint has not been widely condemned in our “judicial experience,” … more is required. … The Challenged Agreements, therefore, are not so obviously anticompetitive to consumers that someone with only a basic understanding of economics would immediately recognize them to be so. … We are bound, then, to apply the rule of reason.
Turning to full rule-of-reason analysis, the court began by assessing anticompetitive effects. It rejected the FTC’s argument that it had established direct evidence of such effects in the form of increased prices. It emphasized that the government could not show an actual anticompetitive change in prices after the restraint was implemented, “because it did not conduct an empirical analysis of the Challenged Agreements effect on the price of contact lenses in the online market for contacts.” Specifically, because the FTC’s evidence was merely “theoretical and anecdotal,” the evidence was not “direct.” The court also concluded that it need not decide whether an FTC theory of anticompetitive harm due to “disrupted information flow” (due to a reduction in the quantity of advertisements) was viable, because 1-800 Contacts had shown a procompetitive justification.
The court rejected the FTC’s finding that 1-800 Contact’s citation of two procompetitive effects—reduced litigation costs and the protection of trademark rights—had no basis in fact. Citing the 2nd Circuit’s Clorox decision, the court emphasized that “[t]rademarks are by their nature non-exclusionary, and agreements to protect trademark interests are ‘common and favored, under the law.’” The FTC’s doubts about the merits of the trademark-infringement claims were irrelevant, because, consistent with Clorox, “trademark agreements that ‘only marginally advance trademark policies’ can be procompetitive.” And while trademark agreements that were “auxiliary to an underlying illegal agreement between competitors” would not pass legal muster, there was “a lack of evidence here that the Challenged Agreements [we]re the ‘product of anything other than hard-nosed trademark negotiations.’”
Because 1-800 Contacts had “carried its burden of identifying a procompetitive justification, the government [had to] … show that a less-restrictive alternative exist[ed] that achieve[d] the same legitimate competitive benefits.” In that regard, the FTC claimed “that the parties to the Challenged Agreements could have agreed to require clear disclosure in each search advertisement of the identity of the rival seller rather than prohibit all advertising on trademarked issues.”
But, citing Clorox, the court opined that “it is usually unwise for courts to second-guess” trademark agreements between competitors, because “the parties’ determination of the proper scope of needed trademark protection is entitled to substantial weight.” In this matter, the FTC “failed to consider the practical reasons for the parties entering into the Challenged Agreements. … The Commission did not consider, for example, how the parties might enforce such a requirement moving forward or give any weight to how onerous such enforcement efforts would be for private parties.” In short, “[w]hile trademark agreements limit competitors from competing as effectively as they otherwise might, … forcing companies to be less aggressive in enforcing their trademarks is antithetical to the procompetitive goals of trademark policy.”
In sum, the court concluded:
In this case, where the restrictions that arise are born of typical trademark settlement agreements, we cannot overlook the Procompetitive Agreements’ procompetitive goal of promoting trademark policy. In light of the strong procompetitive justification of protecting Petitioner’s trademarks, we conclude the Challenged Agreements “merely regulate and perhaps thereby promote competition.”
While strong intellectual-property protection is key to robust competition, the different types of IP advance competitive interests in different manners. Patents, for example, provide a right to exclude access to well-defined inventions, thereby creating incentives to invent and facilitating contracts that spread patent-based innovations throughout the economy. Trademarks protect brand names and logos, thereby serving as specific indicators of origin and creating incentives to invest in improving the quality of the product or service covered by a trademark. As such, strong trademarks spur competition over quality and reduce uncertainty about the particular attributes of competing goods and services. In short, trademarks tend to promote dynamic competition and benefit consumers.
Properly applied, antitrust law seeks to advance consumer welfare and strengthen the competitive process. In that regard, the policy goals of antitrust and intellectual property are in harmony, and antitrust should be enforced in a manner that complements, and does not undermine, IP policy. Thus, when faced with a competitive restraint covering IP rights, antitrust enforcers should evaluate it carefully. They should be mindful of the procompetitive goals it may serve and avoid focusing solely on theories of competitive harm that ignore IP interests.
The FTC majority in 1-800 Contacts missed this fundamental point. They gave relatively short shrift to the procompetitive aspects of trademark protection and, at the same time, mischaracterized minor restrictions on advertising as akin to significant restraints that chill the provision of price information and product comparisons.
There was no showing that the 1-800 restrictions had stifled price competition or undermined in any manner consumers’ ability to compare contact-lens brands and prices online. In reality, the settlement agreements under scrutiny were rather carefully crafted to protect 1-800 Contacts’ goodwill, reflected in its substantial investments in quality enhancement and the promotion of relatively low-cost online sales. In the absence of the settlements, its online rivals would have been able to free ride on 1-800’s brand investments, diminishing that innovative firm’s incentive to continue to invest in trademark-related product enhancements. The long-term effect would have been to diminish, not enhance, dynamic competition.
More generally, had it prevailed, the FTC majority’s blinkered analytical approach in 1-800 Contacts could have chilled vigorous, welfare-enhancing competition in many other markets where trademarks play an important role. Fortunately, the majority’s holding did not stand for long.
Phillips’ brilliant dissent, which carefully integrated trademark-policy concerns into the application of antitrust principles—in tandem with the subsequent 2nd Circuit decision that properly acknowledged the need to weigh such concerns in antitrust analysis—provide a template for trademark-antitrust assessments that may be looked to by future courts and enforcers. Let us hope that current Biden administration FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division enforcers also take heed.