The following post comes from Terence Yen, a 4E at Scalia Law and a Research Assistant at CPIP. This is the first of two posts (see day two recap) summarizing our two-day 5G at the Nexus of IP, Antitrust, and Technology Leadership conference that was held online from George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School on October 7-8, 2020.
By Terence Yen
On October 7-8, 2020, CPIP hosted its Eighth Annual Fall Conference, 5G at the Nexus of IP, Antitrust, and Technology Leadership, online from George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, Virginia. The conference featured a keynote address by the Honorable Andrei Iancu, and it was co-hosted by Scalia Law’s National Security Institute (NSI).
This conference addressed fast-emerging intellectual property (IP), antitrust, and technology leadership issues in the 5G and “Internet of Things” innovation ecosystem. Coverage included standard-essential patents (SEPs) along with established and emerging markets on a regional and global basis. Speakers were drawn from the academic, industry, and policymaking communities, with an emphasis on using objective fact-based analysis to explore points of convergence among legal, economic, and geopolitical perspectives on the IP and regulatory infrastructures that underlie these critical industries.
OPENING REMARKS & INTRODUCTIONS
CPIP Executive Director Sean O’Connor opened the conference by welcoming everyone to this year’s event and explaining that the conference was limited to a few hours each day to avoid “Zoom burnout.” Prof. O’Connor discussed the developing technologies of 5G and Internet of Things (IOT), which represents the systems that connect everyday objects and allow them to communicate with each other in real time. This technology increases the capability of a wide variety of industries, including automotives, home appliances, healthcare systems, and more.
CPIP Deputy Director Joshua Kresh then highlighted the various topics that would be covered during the four panel sessions and the keynote address and fireside chat by USPTO Director Andrei Iancu. Mr. Kresh also thanked the CPIP team, including Kristina Pietro, Devlin Hartline, and Mary Clare Durel, and the conference sponsors for making the conference possible.
SESSION 1: USING DATA TO INFORM POLICY: EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE ON SEPS, SSOS AND FRAND ROYALTIES
The first panel focused on the use of data to inform policy, compared with the use of theoretical models for standard-essential patents (SEPs), standard setting organizations (SSOs), and fair reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) commitments. The panelists included Dr. Anne Layne-Farrar of Charles River Associates, Prof. Stephen Haber of Stanford University, and Prof. Daniel Spulber of Northwestern University, and the panel was moderated by Ted Essex of Hogan Lovells.
The panelists discussed how one of the biggest issues in this field is the setting up of royalty rates for industries such as the automotive sector, which utilize 5G and IOT. In the past, economists have warned the public about the looming problem of royalty stacking. Royalty stacking is a theory about industry collapse, wherein market power is exercised excessively and repeatedly. The theory is based on the concept that one monopoly is bad, two monopolies is worse, three monopolies is even worse, and so on. The fundamental concept is that each monopolist sets its price without taking into consideration the prices charged by other monopolists, leading to a situation where, as the number of patent owners increases, the aggregate royalty grows unsustainably and output collapses.
Despite the fears generated by royalty stacking models, however, this issue has not seemed to materialize in the real world. For example, the actual cumulative royalty yield on a smartphone is less than one-twentieth of that predicted by royalty stacking models. The reason we don’t observe this in the real world is that the theory is built on the notion of “one-time” play, meaning the people setting royalties do so independently of each other. As the data shows, this is an inaccurate portrayal of how royalty rates are set up.
The panel then went on to explain that it is important to check theories against data and real results. At the beginning of FRAND litigation, courts worried that implementers were being anticompetitively harmed by high royalty prices. As such, decisions were issued with the policy goal of protecting implementers. Over time, however, we have begun to see more balance from the courts and a higher demand for data prior to the acceptance of theoretical models.
Courts have now recognized that there is a very real problem of people using products without licenses, and that strategic or opportunistic behaviors can happen on either side of the bargaining table. As such, they are now more willing to act as gatekeepers to enforce good faith on both sides, often falling back to comparable licenses as a basic standard.
With this new emphasis on fair play from the courts, most royalty decisions are now being settled through out-of-court negotiations. Evidence shows that practically all SEP licenses are now subject to negotiation. While patent pools are often cited as the main exception, even they generally still have the option of negotiation. Evidence also suggests that SSOs develop standards through consensus decisions that are procompetitive, and most SEP licenses are mostly negotiated and enforced with contract law, making litigation rare. FRAND commitments have generally been found to be clear and effective, and it is believed that excessive regulation and antitrust intervention would impede standardization. Data shows that FRAND commitments encourage the adoption of standards, do not generate market power, and are consistent with invention and innovation.
The increase in negotiation eliminates many predicted outcomes for theories, which makes data even more important. Accurate real-life data informs public policy, and research in this field is shifting towards new techniques for gathering and analyzing big data, as well as increased use of AI and big data.
This trend helps to avoid policy decisions based on guesswork and provides evidence-based analysis helpful to courts and agencies.
KEYNOTE ADDRESS & FIRESIDE CHAT
“IP controls the destiny of virtually every industry.” Andrei Iancu, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO, started his keynote address with this bold statement. Advanced digital technologies are transforming virtually every product, manufacturing process, and logistical system, and protecting the IP rights to those technologies is not only a right mentioned in the Constitution, but is the foundation of wealth creation for our nation.
As Director Iancu explained, the advancement of 5G and IOT technology will form the backbone of a new system of autonomous vehicles, smart cities, intelligent appliances, telerobotic surgeries, precision agriculture, and much more. However, our nation faces the reality that the United States is falling behind in the intellectual property arms race.
Twenty years ago, the number of patent applications being filed by Chinese citizens was practically zero. By 2018, however, that number reached almost 1.5 million per year, approximately three times the number of American applications. Chinese applications have increased at an average rate of 26% each year, as opposed to a 2-3% annual increase for the U.S. While some may call into question the quality of these Chinese patent applications, Director Iancu noted that the sheer magnitude indicates that China is at minimum attending diligently to its intellectual property portfolios in areas critical to the next technological revolution. This remarkable trend can in part be attributed to China’s extensive system of government incentives for IP, which include tax incentives, subsidies for patents, and other monetary and nonmonetary rewards. As foreign nations like China continue to outperform the U.S. in amassing a rich depth of technological patents, U.S. companies may end up paying billions in royalties as those patents become increasingly vital to the upcoming technological revolution.
Director Iancu went on the explain that the U.S. must take steps to ensure that American technology is able to keep up with foreign technological development. To do so, we must have a robust system of predictable patent rights to maintain the incentives to innovate. If we are forced to use only technologies that are in the public domain, standards will inevitably be stunted.
Recognizing that private sector inventions are the primary source of SEPs, Director Iancu explained the need for a market-driven licensing system and the role of the government in the transition to 5G. He emphasized that it is the Patent Office’s goal to maintain balance between licensors and licensees, and he ended his presentation with the promise that the “USPTO will be steadfast in ensuring that we have a fair and balanced licensing system driven by the needs of the industry.”
Director Iancu then went on to have a fireside chat with CPIP Executive Director Sean O’Connor, taking questions from the audience at the end.
SESSION 2: IP MEETS ANTITRUST AROUND THE GLOBE: POLICY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE LEGAL TREATMENT OF SEPS AND FRAND
The final session of the day included panelists Maureen Ohlhausen of Baker Botts, Dr. Urška Petrovčič of the Hudson Institute, Prof. Daniel Sokol of the University of Florida, and Prof. John Yun of Scalia Law. The panel was moderated by Prof. Henry Butler, Dean of Scalia Law and Executive Director of the law school’s Law & Economics Center.
The panelists discussed how innovation is crucial to the U.S. economy and how IP has been one of the primary drivers of the economy for the last 60 years. Throughout that time, IP and antitrust law have consistently been found to be complementary fields, as both are aimed at encouraging innovation, industry, and competition.
FRAND issues arise in the context of standards setting, as SDOs commonly adopt patent policies to promote access after a standard is adopted. In tech areas especially, hundreds of patents are often necessary to create a working product. This requires standards for fair and reasonable licensing policies, though there is some dispute as to whether the breach of FRAND commitments is an antitrust concern. Blanket licensing policies can offer higher efficiencies related to reduced transaction costs and patent peace, but the concern is that it may be a form of tying arrangement. However, it should be noted that U.S. antitrust agencies have long acknowledged that blanket licensing does not always raise antitrust concerns.
One issue of contention is the topic of injunctions. The confusions raised on the subject have drawn the attentions of the DOJ and FTC, most recently with their post-Madison approach. The DOJ holds that patent holdup is not an antitrust problem and that SSOs should better protect against holdout to ensure maximum incentives to innovate. It believes that patent owner injunction rights should be protected, not persecuted, and that a unilateral and unconditional refusal to license a valid patent should be per se legal. The FTC agrees with some of that approach, with the opinion that breach of FRAND alone is not an antitrust problem, but both hold-out and hold-up can raise serious concerns.
As a general trend, U.S. courts have begun to move away from the idea that IP owners are very constrained by antitrust and must license. However, the advent of 5G is sure to raise a whole new slew of issues, and the 5G battle will be a very different conflict from what we have seen before. Up until now, many of the most politically connected companies around the world have not played a significant role in this debate. With 5G being the future of IOT, however, many more elements of the supply chain will be involved on this issue, and many previously uninvolved players will want to shake up the case law in their favor.
Thus far, European courts have also moved towards the trend of acknowledging that FRAND compliance may make injunctions more difficult, but there are no rules specifically barring injunctions, so the option remains on the table. European courts have generally put forth the opinion that they want to protect the interests of both implementers and SEP owners, and they are currently less willing to adopt conclusions based on categorical rules or abstract theories, preferring evidence-based analysis instead.
At the center of this multisided issue is SSOs. SSOs balance the interests of two competing groups with different incentives: the innovators and the implementers. By design, SSOs are avoiding cracking down on the issue with bold decisions so as not to disrupt the balance between two sides.
The panelists agreed that, as of right now, nothing is set in stone. Antitrust, especially in combination with IP and contract law, remains in a state of flux. This has led to a lot of uncertainty in investments, which may impact our ability to innovate. Amongst its concluding thoughts on the issue, the panel noted that there are titanic conflicts yet to come, and as far as this field is concerned, “winter is coming.”