Department of Justice Recognizes Importance of Reliable Patent Rights in Innovation Economy

It is undeniable that the patent system has been under stress for the past decade, as courts, regulators, and even the Patent Office itself (as the newly confirmed Director Andrei Iancu has acknowledged) have sowed legal uncertainty, weakened patent rights, and even outright eliminated patent rights. This is why a series of recent speeches by Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim—head of the Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice—have signaled an important and welcome policy change from the past decade. It’s just one step, but it’s an important first step to restoring reliability and predictability to property rights in patents, which, as Director Iancu has also been saying in recent speeches, drives innovation and economic growth by promoting investments by inventors, venture capitalists, and companies in the new inventions that make modern life a veritable miracle today.

Delrahim’s speeches are important because one significant point of stress for the patent system and the innovation economy over the past decade has occurred at the intersection of antitrust law and the licensing of patents in standard setting organizations (SSOs). Many people are unaware of this particular issue, and it’s understandable why it flies under the radar screen. The technical standards set by SSOs are the things that make everything work, such as electrical plugs, toasters, and pencils, among millions of other products and services, but they are not obvious to everyday consumers who use these products. Also, antitrust law is a complex domain of lawyers, policy-makers and economists. Still, the patented innovation that comprises technical standards, such as 4G, WiFi, USB, memory storage chips, and other key features of our smart phones and computers, have been essential drivers of innovation in the telecommunications revolution of the past several decades.

In a series of recent speeches, Delrahim has signaled an important and welcome change from his predecessors in how antitrust law will be applied to patented technology that is contributed to the standards that drive innovation in the high-tech industry. Delrahim’s predecessors at the DOJ gave many speeches criticizing (and instigating investigations of) alleged “anti-competitive behavior” by patent owners on technical standards. The DOJ’s approach was one-sided, unbalanced, and lacked evidence confirming the allegations of anti-competitive behavior. Instead, Delrahim is emphasizing the key importance of promoting and properly securing to innovators the technology they create through their long-term, risky, and multi-billion-dollar R&D investments (as succinctly described in two paragraphs here about Qualcomm’s R&D in 5G by an official at the Department of Treasury).

Delrahim has announced that he will return to an evidence-based, balanced antitrust policy at the DOJ. He will not take action against innovators unless there is real-world evidence of consumer harm or proven harm to the development of innovation. The absence of such evidence is well known among scholars and policy-makers. In February 2018, for instance, a group of scholars, former government officials, and judges wrote that “no empirical study has demonstrated that a patent-owner’s request for injunctive relief after a finding of a defendant’s infringement of its property rights has ever resulted either in consumer harm or in slowing down the pace of technological innovation.” It’s significant that Delrahim has announced that the DOJ will constrain its enforcement actions with basic procedural and substantive safeguards long provided to citizens in courts, such as requiring actual evidence to prove assertions of harm. This guards against unfettered and arbitrary regulatory overreach against innocent owners of private property rights. This self-restraint is even more important when overreach negatively impacts innovation, which portends badly for economic growth and the flourishing lives we have all come to expect with our high-tech products and services.

For example, Delrahim has rightly recognized that “patent holdup” theory is just that—a theory about systemic market failure that remains unproven by extensive empirical studies. Even more concerning, “patent holdup” theory—the theory that patent owners will exploit their ability to seek injunctions to protect their property rights and thus “holdup” commercial implementers by demanding exorbitantly high royalties for the use of their technology—is directly contradicted by the economic evidence of the smart phone industry itself. The smart phone industry is one of the most patent-intensive industries in the U.S. innovation economy; thus, “patent holdup” theory hypothesizes that there will be higher prices, slower technological development, and less and less new development of products and services. Instead, as everyone knows, smart phones—such as the Apple iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy, among many others—are defined by rapidly dropping quality-controlled prices, explosive growth in products and services, and incredibly fast technological innovation. The 5G revolution is right around the corner, which will finally make real the promise of the Internet of Things.

In sum, Delrahim has repeatedly stated that antitrust officials must respect the equal rights of all stakeholders in the innovation industries—the inventors creating fundamental technological innovation, the rights of the companies who implement this innovation, and the consumers who purchase these products and services. This requires restraining investigations and enforcement actions to evidence, and not acting solely on the basis of unproven theories, colorful anecdotes, or rhetorical narratives developed inside D.C. by lobbyists and activists (such as “patent trolls”). This is good governance, which is what fosters ongoing investments in the R&D that makes possible the inventions that drives new technological innovation in smart phones and in the innovation economy more generally.

We will delve more deeply into the substantive issues and implications of Delrahim’s recent speeches in follow-on essays. Since his speeches have been delivered over the course of the past six months, we have aggregated them here in one source. Read them and come back for further analyses of these important speeches (and more speeches that will likely come, which we will keep adding to the list below):

  • November 10, 2017. In a speech at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law, Assistant Attorney General Delrahim discussed why patent holdout is a bigger problem than patent hold-up. “[T]he hold-up and hold-out problems are not symmetric. What do I mean by that? It is important to recognize that innovators make an investment before they know whether that investment will ever pay off. If the implementers hold out, the innovator has no recourse, even if the innovation is successful.” He further noted that antitrust law has a role to play in preventing the concerted anticompetitive actions that occur during holdout.
  • February 1, 2018. In a speech at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Delrahim noted that the proper antitrust focus should be on protecting the innovative process, not “short-term pricing” considerations. With this focus, using antitrust remedies should be approached with “caution.”
  • February 21, 2018. In a speech at the College of Europe, in Brussels Belgium, Delrahim observed that antitrust enforcers have aggressively tried to police patent license terms deemed excessive, and “have strayed too far in the direction of accommodating the concerns of technology licensees who participate in standard setting bodies, very likely at the risk of undermining incentives for the creation of new and innovative technologies.” The real problem and solution he noted is that the “dueling interests of innovators and implementers always are in tension, but the tension is best resolved through free market competition and bargaining.”
  • March 16, 2018. In a speech at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Delrahim expanded on his detailed remarks from his talk at USC by adding some historical context from the founding fathers. He also made the core point that “patent hold-up is not an antitrust problem,” noting that FRAND commitments from patent owners are part of the normal competitive process and are therefore appropriately policed by contract and common law remedies. He further describes the necessary impacts of having a right to exclude in the patent right, including that the “unilateral and unconditional refusal to license a patent should be considered per se
  • April 10, 2018. In a keynote address at the LeadershIP Conference on IP, Antitrust, and Innovation Policy in Washington, D.C., Delrahim emphasized the harm that can occur when “advocacy positions lead to unsupportable or even detrimental legal theories when taken out of context.” He specifically noted that some advocacy about patent hold-up could undermine standard setting as “putative licensees have been emboldened to stretch antitrust theories beyond their rightful application, and that courts have indulged these theories at the risk of undermining patent holders’ incentives to participate in standard setting at all.”