The Antitrust Division’s Devaluation of Standard-Essential Patents
Citation: 104 Geo L.J. Online 48 (2016)
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is a standard-setting organization (SSO) whose standards incorporate technologies owned by many different holders of standard-essential patents (SEPs). The IEEE’s patent policy specifies the conditions under which an SEP holder voluntarily commits to license its SEPs on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms. In February 2015, the IEEE became the first SSO to regulate the calculation of FRAND royalties. The IEEE made that transformative change with the encouragement and blessing of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. The amendments purport to mitigate the risk of patent holdup and royalty stacking—theoretically and empirically disputed conjectures, which postulate that SEP holders routinely extract supracompetitive royalties from the implementers of a standard. In fact, the amendments broaden the binding provisions of the IEEE’s FRAND commitment, diminish the SEP holder’s ability to enforce its patent rights, and unambiguously lower the royalties that the SEP holder may charge a licensee. In its business review letter, the Antitrust Division commended the bylaw amendments for addressing the risk of patent holdup and royalty stacking without any analysis of whether those harms actually occur in the implementation of the IEEE’s standards (let alone occur so often as to raise a legitimate policy concern). At the same time, the Antitrust Division ignored the obvious, countervailing concern that the bylaw amendments facilitate collusion among implementers to suppress the royalties they pay for SEPs. The Antitrust Division exists not to orchestrate or cheerlead the coordinated action of buyers in a market to suppress prices. It exists to ensure that firms obey the antitrust laws. That duty required the Division to assess, with skepticism and scrupulous impartiality, the competitive implications of the coordinated action of a subset of members of the IEEE that would benefit from the SSO’s adoption of bylaw amendments having the purpose and effect of suppressing the FRAND royalties that this subset of members would pay to license standard-essential patents. The Division failed to discharge that duty.