[TOTM: The following is the fourth in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the FTC v. Qualcomm case recently decided by Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California. Other posts in this series are here.]
[This post is authored by Gerard Lloblet, Professor of Economics at CEMFI, and Jorge Padilla, Senior Managing Director at Compass Lexecon. Both have advised SEP holders, and to a lesser extent licensees, in royalty negotiations and antitrust disputes.]
Over the last few years competition authorities in the US and elsewhere have repeatedly warned about the risk of patent hold-up in the licensing of Standard Essential Patents (SEPs). Concerns about such risks were front and center in the recent FTC case against Qualcomm, where the Court ultimately concluded that Qualcomm had used a series of anticompetitive practices to extract unreasonable royalties from implementers. This post evaluates the evidence for such a risk, as well as the countervailing risk of patent hold-out.
In general, hold up may arise when firms negotiate trading terms after they have made costly, relation-specific investments. Since the costs of these investments are sunk when trading terms are negotiated, they are not factored into the agreed terms. As a result, depending on the relative bargaining power of the firms, the investments made by the weaker party may be undercompensated (Williamson, 1979).
In the context of SEPs, patent hold-up would arise if SEP owners were able to take advantage of the essentiality of their patents to charge excessive royalties to manufacturers of products reading on those patents that made irreversible investments in the standard (see Lemley and Shapiro (2007)). Similarly, in the recent FTC v. Qualcomm ruling, trial judge Lucy Koh concluded that firms may also use commercial strategies (in this case, Qualcomm’s “no license, no chips” policy, refusing to deal with certain parties and demanding exclusivity from others) to extract royalties that depart from the FRAND benchmark.
After years of heated debate, however, there is no consensus about whether patent hold-up actually exists. Some argue that there is no evidence of hold-up in practice. If patent hold-up were a significant problem, manufacturers would anticipate that their investments would be expropriated and would thus decide not to invest in the first place. But end-product manufacturers have invested considerable amounts in standardized technologies (Galetovic et al, 2015). Others claim that while investment is indeed observed, actual investment levels are “necessarily” below those that would be observed in the absence of hold-up. They allege that, since that counterfactual scenario is not observable, it is not surprising that more than fifteen years after the patent hold-up hypothesis was first proposed, empirical evidence of its existence is lacking.
Meanwhile, innovators are concerned about a risk in the opposite direction, the risk of patent hold-out. As Epstein and Noroozi (2018) explain,
By “patent holdout” we mean the converse problem, i.e., that an implementer refuses to negotiate in good faith with an innovator for a license to valid patent(s) that the implementer infringes, and instead forces the innovator to either undertake significant litigation costs and time delays to extract a licensing payment through court order, or else to simply drop the matter because the licensing game is no longer worth the candle.
Patent hold-out, also known as “efficient infringement,” is especially relevant in the standardization context for two reasons. First, SEP owners are oftentimes required to license their patents under Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) conditions. Particularly when, as occurs in some jurisdictions, innovators are not allowed to request an injunction, they have little or no leverage in trying to require licensees to accept a licensing deal. Secondly, SEP owners typically possess many complementary patents and, therefore, seek to license their portfolio of SEPs at once, since that minimizes transaction costs. Yet, some manufacturers de facto refuse to negotiate in this way and choose to challenge the validity of the SEP portfolio patent-by-patent and/or jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction. This strategy involves large litigation costs and is therefore inefficient. SEP holders claim that this practice is anticompetitive and it also leads to royalties that are too low.
While the concerns of SEP holders seem to have attracted the attention of the leadership of the US DOJ (see, for example, here), some authors have dismissed them as theoretically groundless, empirically immaterial and irrelevant from an antitrust perspective (see here).
Evidence of patent hold-out from litigation
In an ongoing work, Llobet and Padilla (forthcoming), we analyze the effects of the sequential litigation strategy adopted by some manufacturers and compare its consequences with the simultaneous litigation of the whole portfolio. We show that sequential litigation results in lower royalty payments than simultaneous litigation and may result in under-compensation of innovation and the dissipation of social surplus when litigation costs are high.
The model relies on two basic and realistic assumptions. First, in sequential lawsuits, the result of a trial affects the probability that each party wins the following one. That is, if the manufacturer wins the first trial, it has a higher probability of winning the second, as a first victory may uncover information about the validity of other patents that relate to the same type of innovation, which will be less likely to be upheld in court. Second, the impact of a validity challenge on royalty payments is asymmetric: they are reduced to zero if the patent is found to be invalid but are not increased if it is found valid (and infringed).
Our results indicate that these features of the legal system can be strategically used by the manufacturer. The intuition is as follows. Suppose that the innovator sets a royalty rate for each patent for which, in the simultaneous trial case, the manufacturer would be indifferent between settling and litigating. Under sequential litigation, however, the manufacturer might be willing to challenge a patent because of the gain in a future trial. This is due to the asymmetric effects that winning or losing the second trial has on the royalty rate that this firm will have to pay. In particular, if the manufacturer wins the first trial, so that the first patent is invalidated, its probability of winning the second one increases, which means that the innovator is likely to settle for a lower royalty rate for the second patent or see both patents invalidated in court. In the opposite case, if the innovator wins the first trial, so that the second is also likely to be unfavorable to the manufacturer, the latter always has the option to pay up the original royalty rate and avoid the second trial. In other words, the possibility for the manufacturer to negotiate the royalty rate downwards after a victory, without the risk of it being increased in case of a defeat, fosters sequential litigation and results in lower royalties than the simultaneous litigation of all patents would produce.
This mechanism, while being applicable to any portfolio that includes patents the validity of which is related, becomes more significant in the context of SEPs for two reasons. The first is the difficulty of innovators to adjust their royalties upwards after the first successful trial, as it might be considered a breach of their FRAND commitments. The second is that, following recent competition law litigation in the EU and other jurisdictions, SEP owners are restricted in their ability to seek (preliminary) injunctions even in the case of willful infringement. Our analysis demonstrates that the threat of injunction mitigates, though it is unlikely to eliminate completely, the incentive to litigate sequentially and, therefore, excessively (i.e. even when such litigation reduces social welfare).
We also find a second motivation for excessive litigation: business stealing. Manufacturers litigate excessively in order to avoid payment and thus achieve a valuable cost advantage over their competitors. They prefer to litigate even when litigation costs are so large that it would be preferable for society to avoid litigation because their royalty burden is reduced both in absolute terms and relative to the royalty burden for its rivals (while it does not go up if the patents are found valid). This business stealing incentive will result in the under-compensation of innovators, as above, but importantly it may also result in the anticompetitive foreclosure of more efficient competitors.
Consider, for example, a scenario in which a large firm with the ability to fund protracted litigation efforts competes in a downstream market with a competitive fringe, comprising small firms for which litigation is not an option. In this scenario, the large manufacturer may choose to litigate to force the innovator to settle on a low royalty. The large manufacturer exploits the asymmetry with its defenseless small rivals to reduce its IP costs. In some jurisdictions it may also exploit yet another asymmetry in the legal system to achieve an even larger cost advantage. If both the large manufacturer and the innovator choose to litigate and the former wins, the patent is invalidated, and the large manufacturer avoids paying royalties altogether. Whether this confers a comparative advantage on the large manufacturer depends on whether the invalidation results in the immediate termination of all other existing licenses or not.
Our work thus shows that patent hold-out concerns are both theoretically cogent and have non-trivial antitrust implications. Whether such concerns merit intervention is an empirical matter. While reviewing that evidence is outside the scope of our work, our own litigation experience suggests that patent hold-out should be taken seriously.