Distribution, Competition, and Antitrust / Intellectual Property (IP) Law

“Anti-Patent Troll” Fails to Secure Dismissal of Amended Antitrust Complaint

 

No-Troll

No-Troll (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back in January, I covered the case of Cascades Computer Innovation LLC v. RPX Corp., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10526 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 24, 2013), where Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers dismissed – with leave to amend – Cascades’ antitrust complaint against RPX, Dell, HTC, LG Electronics, Motorola Mobility, and Samsung. On December 3, 2013, Judge Rogers refused to dismiss Cascades’ amended complaint. See 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 170517.

Cascades is a non-practicing entity (“NPE”), accused by the defendants of being a “patent troll.” It holds the rights to a portfolio of patents relating to technology that optimizes the use of the Android mobile phone/tablet operating system. Dell, HTC, LG, Motorola Mobility, and Samsung (the manufacturing defendants) sell mobile devices, including those employing the Android operating system. Together, they allegedly sell more than 95% of all Android devices in the United States.

Cascades alleged that the manufacturing defendants, along with RPX, engaged in a group boycott to not license Cascades’ patents. RPX is a defensive patent aggregator – an “anti-troll” – formed to protect its members from NPEs. It frequently acts as an intermediary for its members for purposes of acquiring patents and negotiating licenses on behalf of its members.

In a nutshell, Cascades alleged that the manufacturing defendants, through or with RPX, refused to negotiate separately with Cascades for patent licenses, or at least refused to negotiate independently in a “serious” manner with Cascades, and that the defendants agreed not to license Cascades’ patents. Allegedly, the object of the conspiracy was to force Cascades to abandon its efforts to license and enforce its patents, accept a below market-value offer from RPX, or go out of business by virtue of expensive litigation. In this manner, defendants would allegedly obtain a monopsony position.

In granting defendants’ motions to dismiss the original complaint, the Northern District of California agreed that Cascades had not adequately alleged a conspiracy, had not properly defined a relevant market, and had not adequately alleged harm to competition. In its amended complaint,(*) Cascades provided much greater detail about the negotiation history with RPX. Those alleged facts were sufficient for the Court to conclude that Cascades had adequately alleged both a horizontal conspiracy – an agreement among manufacturers not to deal with Cascades except through RPX – and a vertical conspiracy, i.e., an agreement between each manufacturing defendant and RPX. “[W]hile the [amended complaint] alleges a written agreement between RPX and each Manufacturing Defendant which permits individual negotiation, it also suggests that in this instance each Manufacturing Defendant understood that it should refrain from exercising its right to negotiate individually with Cascades and instead deal with Cascades either through RPX or not at all.”

The Court also rejected various other arguments advanced by the defendants, including the argument that defendants did not want to deal with Cascades individually because Cascades had overpriced its patents. While that theory was “plausib[le],” the Court did “not find it so fully and convincingly explanatory as to render Cascades’ revised allegations implausible by comparison.” The Court also determined that the conspiracy alleged by Cascades “makes economic sense because it would permit potential licensees . . . to realize RPX’s publically stated promise of ‘wholesale’ pricing, provided they refrained from competitively bidding against each other and sent RPX to the market in their stead, where it would be the sole viable purchaser.”

Cascades raises novel issues involving the application of antitrust law to the activities of defensive patent aggregators. It will be interesting to see how the case develops after discovery is completed.

(*) Cascades voluntarily dismissed its claims against LG and did not name Dell as a defendant in its amended complaint.

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Can An “Anti-Patent Troll” Be a Monopsonist or a Section 1 Conspirator?

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent interesting case suggests that “anti-patent trolls” may in theory face antitrust liability. In Cascades Computer Innovation LLC v. RPX Corp., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10526 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 24, 2013), Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers dismissed – with leave to amend – Cascades’ antitrust complaint against RPX, Dell, HTC, LG Electronics, Motorola Mobility, and Samsung.

Cascades is a non-practicing entity (“NPE”), accused by the defendants of being a “patent troll.” It holds the rights to a portfolio of patents relating to technology that optimizes the use of the Android mobile phone/tablet operating system. Dell, HTC, LG, Motorola Mobility, and Samsung (the manufacturing defendants) sell mobile devices, including those employing the Android operating system. Together, they allegedly sell more than 95% of all Android devices in the United States.

Cascades alleged that the manufacturing defendants, along with RPX, engaged in a group boycott to not license Cascades’ patents. RPX is a defensive patent aggregator – an “anti-troll” – formed to protect its members from NPEs. It frequently acts as an intermediary for its members for purposes of acquiring patents and negotiating licenses on behalf of its members.

In a nutshell, Cascades alleged that the manufacturing defendants, through or with RPX, refused to negotiate separately with Cascades for patent licenses, or at least refused to negotiate independently in a “serious” manner with Cascades, and that the defendants agreed not to license Cascades’ patents. Allegedly, the object of the conspiracy was to force Cascades to abandon its efforts to license and enforce its patents, accept a below market-value offer from RPX, or go out of business by virtue of expensive litigation. In this manner, defendants would allegedly obtain a monopsony position.

In granting defendants’ motions to dismiss the complaint, the Northern District of California agreed that Cascades had not adequately alleged a conspiracy, had not properly defined a relevant market, and had not adequately alleged harm to competition.

The court also agreed that Cascades had not adequately pled a conspiracy that made economic sense. According to RPX, a more plausible explanation for the manufacturing defendants’ decision to decline a $5 million licensing offer was that the offer price was too high. RPX had been negotiating a $10 million deal for all of its 110 members, which made a $5 million offer to each of LG, Motorola, Samsung and HTC too high (collectively $20 million). Although the court did not endorse this and several other “economic sense” arguments, it concluded that Cascades

ha[d] fastidiously avoided providing specific facts with respect to the timing of the alleged negotiations and the interplay with the filing of [actions] for patent infringement. Cascades also will need to provide specific facts to clarify why, absent a conspiracy, it is economically irrational for the Manufacturing Defendants—who are being sued by Cascades for infringement of one patent, the ‘750 Patent—to decline an offer to license Cascades’ entire portfolio of 38 patents. Without clarification and specificity, the Court will not presume economic [ir]rationality where the circumstances giving rise to the lawsuit plausibly suggest nothing more than a tactical ploy to regain economic leverage that Plaintiff lost in the licensing negotiations.

However, the court also refused to hold that the alleged group boycott activity could not constitute a per se Section 1 violation. And the court rejected defendants’ argument that Cascades failed to allege antitrust injury because of the lack of allegations regarding possible consumer injury. “Anticompetitive conduct need not harm consumers specifically in order to cause antitrust injury.”

Although Cascades now has an uphill battle, given leave to amend the complaint, only time will tell whether it can allege sufficient facts to establish its conspiracy, competitive harm, and relevant market allegations.

As Professor Hovenkamp cogently wrote in a comment to the article below — a comment which still applies to the likely amended complaint:

As a matter of antitrust law, a great deal will depend on whether this is a naked agreement to refuse to license (or to suppress the price), or whether it is an ancillary agreement setting standards so as to exclude the plaintiff. A naked agreement among a group of competing manufacturers not to purchase a license or to pay only a low fee would be illegal per se under the antitrust laws. On the other hand, joint licensees who are actively engaged in standard setting do set standards that exclude some technologies. Standard setting is addressed under the rule of reason and generally upheld if there is an objectively reasonable basis for the exclusion. An objectively reasonable basis could include a decision that a patent offered by an outsider is not valid or that the manufactures already have suitable alternatives to the offered patent or are not infringing it.

Another possibility is that the defendant device manufacturers are not acting in concert at all, but are individually deciding not to purchase a license from the plaintiff. The firms are not monopolists, and in any event there is no law in the United States that requires even a monopolist (acting unilaterally) to purchase a license from an outside patentee.

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Can My Supplier Refuse to Sell Products to Me?

Supply Chain

Wholesalers, distributors, and retailers are dependent upon their suppliers for a supply of products. What happens when your supplier decides it no longer wants to deal with you? Is that lawful?

The answer, of course, depends on the facts. Let’s break the question down into various possibilities. The main dividing line is between unilateral actions by the supplier and “concerted” actions (that is, actions in furtherance of an agreement or understanding with other firms or companies).

I’ll cover basic competition law here; keep in mind that you may also have contract or promissory estoppel claims.

Unilateral action

If your supplier decides all by itself that it no longer wants to do business with you, it is generally within its rights to do so under the competition laws if it does not have “market power.” The concept of market power can become technically complicated, but it essentially means the power to raise prices above competitive levels for some significant period of time. Market power may not be immediately obvious, so we often use market share as a simple proxy for market power, at least to obtain a quick sense of the situation.

So how does this work in practice? If you are buying widgets, your supplier accounts for 90% of the widget market, and it suddenly decides to stop selling to you, it is possible you are looking at an anti-competitive action that might violate the special rules that apply to monopolists or would-be monopolists. You would have to develop more facts to assess the strength of any such argument.

If your supplier’s market share is less than 40%, it is very unlikely that you have such a claim. Above 60% to 70%, you may, and in between 40% and 60% is a bit of a grey area (although some courts have held that certain percentages in this range either are, or are not, sufficient). Details of the market structure (are there significant barriers to entry? are there significant barriers to other firms’ expansion?) may be important.

Just because your supplier has market power and has terminated you, however, does not necessarily mean that you have a good claim. You would still need to prove that the termination has harmed competition; harm to your business is not by itself enough. For example, all things being equal, the termination of one of many distributors may not be competitively significant. On the other hand, if a supplier terminates all distributors that carry products of the supplier’s competitor – and the supplier has market power – then a claim is in theory possible. But again, proving harm to competition can require a detailed understanding of the marketplace and the distribution system.

Lacking market power, however, a supplier generally has the right to do business with whom it pleases. That’s the “American way.”

Concerted action

What if your supplier terminates you because your competitors complain to the supplier? For example, they might complain that your pricing is “too low” and is hurting the market or their business.

The central principle remains that a supplier can do business with whom it likes. It can terminate a distributor for pricing reasons – even if it has previously received complaints from other distributors. Such a sequence of events is not by itself sufficient to establish an unlawful agreement or concerted action.

But if there is evidence of an actual agreement between a supplier and some distributors to terminate another price-cutting distributor in order to raise, maintain, or stabilize pricing, such an agreement may be illegal. Developing the evidence of such an agreement in order to establish something more than dealer complaints followed by a termination can be challenging, but it is not impossible.

Concerted action involving multiple suppliers can also pose competition law issues. Such an agreement may amount to a “group boycott” that could be challenged under federal or state antitrust law.

Summary

Most supplier terminations are entirely lawful. But occasionally some cross the line, either because the supplier has market power and the supplier is exercising it to harm competition, or because the supplier has agreed with other firms to terminate a price-cutting distributor. In such cases, a careful analysis of the facts is required.

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