Distribution, Competition, and Antitrust / IP Law

Antitrust Claims Against “Anti-Patent Troll” Dismissed

I previously covered the case of Cascades Computer Innovation LLC v. RPX Corp., (N.D. Cal.) (Gonzalez Rogers, J.).  As I wrote in connection with the court’s refusal to dismiss the plaintiff’s amended complaint in December 2013:

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.

The court stayed the case pending resolution of a claim of infringement regarding the primary patent at issue.  Many defendants settled those claims, but Samsung went to trial and ultimately prevailed, receiving a jury verdict of non-infringement.

On February 23, 2016, the Court dismissed the remaining antitrust claims (on a motion for judgment on the pleadings).  The court wrote that failure to license an invalid patent cannot serve as the basis for a cognizable antitrust injury.

Plaintiff alternatively argued that it suffered antitrust injury in connection with the other patents in the portfolio, but the court viewed any such purported injury as de minimis.  Moreover,

only Samsung is alleged to have infringed any of the other patents. However, the complaint never specifies which other patent Samsung purportedly infringed. Only in its opposition brief does plaintiff finally claim that Samsung purportedly infringed the ‘130 Patent. As described above, the market power assertions are premised on a combination of the manufacturing defendants’ shares. Plaintiff does not contend that Samsung’s share alone—17 percent of Android-based phones, a subset of a larger smartphone market and an even larger cellular phone market—is sufficient to undergird its theory. It is also not plausible, in light of the application of the collateral estoppel doctrine regarding non-infringement, that plaintiff’s failure to license the ‘130 Patent was an antitrust injury where only Samsung is alleged to have infringed the patent. In such circumstances, the complaint does not provide a convincing motive for the other alleged participants to conspire against plaintiff or allege sufficient market power by Samsung individually.

Even if plaintiff could establish antitrust standing, the motion would be granted for plaintiff’s failure to state any viable federal antitrust claim. The Court previously articulated the elements of these federal antitrust claims in connection with its order denying defendants’ motions to dismiss. After supplementing the picture with the patent jury’s finding of non-infringement of the “primary” ‘750 Patent, the FAC utterly fails to satisfy the elements necessary to state federal antitrust claims. Indeed, if the complaint were amended to insert the word “non-infringed” before each of its more than seventy references to the ‘750 Patent, then the lack of plausibility would shine through acutely.

2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22727 (cit. omit.).  The court also wrote that it was not inclined to maintain supplemental jurisdiction over state law antitrust and unfair competition claims.

Because the decision turns on a finding of non-infringement, it is not clear to what it extent it presages future dismissals of antitrust claims against defensive patent aggregators.

Patent Law Can Stop Product Resale/Reuse

English: Sleepy Head

A different type of exhaustion. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most people know that inkjet printers are pretty cheap; the real money is in the ink cartridges.  Not surprisingly, printer/cartridge manufacturers often want to stop the resale of used ink cartridges (which can be refilled by third-party ink companies).  In the past, some manufacturers have relied on patent law (many cartridges are patented) to do so.  Their position has raised two questions: can patent law support resale/reuse restrictions in the U.S., and do foreign sales allow the buyer to import the product and sell it in the United States without infringing on the patent(s)?

I previously covered this issue here.  The en banc Federal Circuit recently took up the issue in Lexmark Int’l, Inc. v. Impression Products, Inc., No. 2014-1617, ___ F.3d ____ (Fed. Cir. Feb. 12, 2016) (en banc).   The ABA’s Journal has a good summary of the case and issues (written just before the en banc decision).

In short(*), the Federal Circuit held a seller can use its patent rights to block both resale and reuse of a product.  According to the majority:

First, we adhere to the holding of Mallinckrodt, Inc. v. Medipart, Inc., 976 F.2d 700 (Fed. Cir. 1992), that a patentee, when selling a patented article subject to a
single-use/no-resale restriction that is lawful and clearly communicated to the purchaser, does not by that sale give the buyer, or downstream buyers, the resale/reuse authority that has been expressly denied. Such resale or reuse, when contrary to the known, lawful limits on the authority conferred at the time of the original sale, remains unauthorized and therefore remains infringing conduct under the terms of § 271. Under Supreme Court precedent, a patentee may preserve its § 271 rights through such restrictions when licensing others to make and sell patented articles; Mallinckrodt held that there is no sound legal basis for denying the same ability to the patentee that makes and sells the articles itself. We find Mallinckrodt’s principle to remain sound after the Supreme Court’s decision in Quanta Computer, Inc. v. LG Electronics, Inc., 553 U.S. 617 (2008), in which the Court did not have before it or address a patentee sale at all, let alone one made subject to a restriction, but a sale made by a separate manufacturer under a patentee-granted license conferring unrestricted authority to sell.

While a “naked” sale means that the product is free and clear of restrictions, a patentee can restrict reuse or resale by imposing express license restrictions on the first sale.

The Court also held that authorized sales of a product abroad does not exhaust the U.S. patent rights associated with that product.

Second, we adhere to the holding of Jazz Photo Corp. v. International Trade Comm’n, 264 F.3d 1094 (Fed. Cir. 2001), that a U.S. patentee, merely by selling or authorizing the sale of a U.S.-patented article abroad, does not authorize the buyer to import the article and sell and use it in the United States, which are infringing acts in the absence of patentee-conferred authority. Jazz Photo’s no-exhaustion ruling recognizes that foreign markets under foreign sovereign control are not equivalent to the U.S. markets under U.S. control in which a U.S. patentee’s sale presumptively exhausts its rights in the article sold. A buyer may still rely on a foreign sale as a defense to infringement, but only by establishing an express or implied license—a defense separate from exhaustion, as Quanta holds—based on patentee communications or other circumstances of the sale. We conclude that Jazz Photo’s no-exhaustion principle remains sound after the Supreme Court’s decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 1351 (2013), in which the Court did not address patent law or whether a foreign sale should be viewed as conferring authority to engage in otherwise-infringing domestic acts. Kirtsaeng is a copyright case holding that 17 U.S.C. § 109(a) entitles owners of copyrighted articles to take certain acts “without the authority” of the copyright holder. There is no counterpart to that provision in the Patent Act, under which a foreign sale is properly treated as neither conclusively nor even presumptively exhausting the U.S. patentee’s rights in the United States.

The non-exhaustion rule effectively allows patentees to price discriminate, i.e., to charge lower prices abroad and higher prices in the U.S.  Some have argued that the position now adopted by the Federal Circuit helps consumers in low-income countries, perhaps at the expense of U.S. consumers.

Given the stakes here — as noted in the ABA Journal article — a Supreme Court petition for certiorari is almost certain, and the chances of it being granted may be reasonably high.

(*) The Federal Circuit’s decision is over 90 pages long.  So an “in short” discussion is good, but obviously omits some of the details.


SCOTUS Reaffirms that in Antitrust Cases, It Gives Less Deference to Precedent


(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, in Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rule first announced in Brulotte v. Thys Co., 379 U.S. 29 (1964), that a patentee cannot collect royalties on sales made after expiration of the patent.

The patent law decision upholds a probably anticompetitive rule that from an economic perspective makes little sense. That said, the decision is not particularly surprising, resting as it does on stare decisis (settled law) grounds – though it is amusingly chock-full of references to Spiderman (Marvel Entertainment had licensed a Spiderman product from the plaintiff-patentee, who had a patent on a toy that lets children shoot “webs” from a device held in the palm of the hand). Somewhat disappointingly, the decision does not expressly address an important issue – whether, when a patent portfolio is licensed, license fees must decrease as patents expire.

Perhaps the most important portion of the decision is the following discussion of stare decisis and antitrust law:

If Brulotte were an antitrust rather than a patent case, we might [address the issues] as Kimble would like. This Court has viewed stare decisis as having less-than-usual force in cases involving the Sherman Act. See, e.g., Khan, 522 U. S., at 20–21. Congress, we have explained, intended that law’s reference to “restraint of trade” to have “changing content,” and authorized courts to oversee the term’s “dynamic potential.” Business Electronics Corp. v. Sharp Electronics Corp., 485 U. S. 717, 731–732 (1988). We have therefore felt relatively free to revise our legal analysis as economic understanding evolves and (just as Kimble notes) to reverse antitrust precedents that misperceived a practice’s competitive consequences. See Leegin, 551 U. S., at 899–900. Moreover, because the question in those cases was whether the challenged activity restrained trade, the Court’s rulings necessarily turned on its understanding of economics. See Business Electronics Corp., 485 U. S., at 731. Accordingly, to overturn the decisions in light of sounder economic reasoning was to take them “on [their] own terms.” Halliburton, 573 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 9).

This is a strong reaffirmation of the Court’s ability to reshape antitrust law according to economic principles and new economic understandings – despite the traditional rule of stare decisis. In other words, for stare decisis principles, some animals really are more equal than others.

Update (06/26/15): I was quoted in Law360 about this (may be behind a paywall).

Is Antitrust Relevant for Startups, Emerging, and Non-Dominant Firms?

The answer is (surprise!) “yes.”

There are a number of ways in which antitrust law is relevant to emerging and non-dominant companies. Those firms may:

  • Need to deal with the dominant firms in their markets, including by (i) responding to threats or actions by dominant firms to foreclose access to products, services or markets, or (ii) negotiating to acquire or maintain access to needed IP;
  • Need access to standard-essential patents (“SEPs”) and to understand their rights to and under FRAND licenses;
  • Want to exploit and license their own IP and put restrictions on its use without triggering antitrust issues;
  • Want to collaborate with other firms – including (dominant) competitors – in producing products or delivering services (i.e., entering into joint ventures);
  • Want to merge with, acquire, or be acquired by another firm, including a dominant one;
  • Want to impose vertical price or non-price restraints, or offer different customers, dealers or distributors different prices; or
  • Need to respond to a government merger or conduct investigation as a third party.

All of the above issues (and more) require the consideration of antitrust law. This is not to say that, for example, every complaint by an emerging firm against a dominant firm is the nucleus of a valid antitrust claim. There are many considerations – including whether there is harm to competition, whether a party has antitrust standing, and the like – and often there is no claim, just the rough-and-tumble of normal business competition. But it’s always helpful to understand the legal landscape, and to consider whether Congress and the courts have struck the appropriate balance between robust competition and truly exclusionary conduct. And on the defensive end, it’s always a good idea to understand how far you can push restraints.

Pay-for-delay and the Rule of Reason

Last week, I co-authored an article in the Los Angeles/San Francisco Daily Journal on the California Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Cipro Cases.  There, the Court held that so-called “reverse payment” patent settlements are evaluated under a specific “structured” Rule of Reason analysis, and rejected plaintiffs’ arguments that settlement payments exceeding the costs of litigation or the value of services provided by a generic manufacturer are per se unlawful.

The article is behind a pay wall.  When I get clearance to republish it, I will do so here.

* Updated 06/08/2015: The article is attached. * FNL-Orrick (DJ-5.14.15)

Three Billy Goats Gruff

(You know . . .  the fairy tale about trolls.)

This summer, PwC published its 2014 Patent Litigation Study.  The tagline of the study is “[a]s case volume leaps, damages continue general decline.”

Some of they key findings — which are quite fascinating — are:

  • Median damages awards continue to trend down—to $4.3 million in recent years.
  • Damages awards for NPEs averaged more than triple those for practicing entities over the last four years.
  • The median jury award amounted to nearly 37.5 times the median bench award between 2010 and 2013.
  • NPEs have been successful 25% of the time overall, versus 35% for practicing entities, due to the relative lack of success for NPEs at summary judgment. However, both types of entities win about two-thirds of their trials.

You can read the whole thing at the link above.

A World Without Patents?

Patents are only for the old machine

(Photo credit: Alexandre Dulaunoy)

Planet Money’s recent podcast interviews two economists who advocate for the ultimate patent law reform: the abolition of patents.

They argue that patents inhibit innovation.  For example, the Wright Brothers supposedly secured a number of patents on their early airplane design — which didn’t work very well and which stalled (pun intended) airframe development in the U.S. for a number of years.  The industry migrated to France to avoid the U.S. patents.

What about pharma, you might ask (as did I?)  Are pharma companies really going to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into new drugs if there is no patent protection?

Even these economists seem to concede the answer is “no,” so they propose an alternative — the government would pay for initial R&D.  When the government finds a promising new molecule, it would put it out to bid to pharma companies.  The lowest bidder would pay for the expensive clinical trials but would then receive a royalty on all drug sales for some number of years.

It’s an interesting idea — although frankly it doesn’t sound that different from a patent.  Or at least it’s not much different from a patent associated with a duty to license at some fair and reasonable rate.

There’s another issue — not mentioned in the podcast: if the U.S. gets rid of patents, but other countries don’t, won’t that distort all the economics?  R&D may migrate elsewhere, and the supply and price of goods (those subject to foreign patents) in the U.S. may be adversely affected.

It’s an interesting idea to think about — but one that as a practical matter isn’t going to go anywhere.  At least not for many years.

UC Hastings — Antitrust and IP

I’m pleased to have spoken today to a group of law students at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law on the intersection of antitrust and IP law.  It was nice to see an almost-full lecture hall — lots of interest in the topic.

Hot Topics in Intellectual Property and Antitrust Law

I’ve posted my slides from my webinar presentation on hot topics in IP and antitrust law.  You can find them here.

Speaking on Hot Topics in Antitrust/IP Law

On February 19, 2014, I’ll be speaking on hot topics at the intersection of antitrust and IP law.  See this link for more information about the webinar.

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