Tuesday, 27 February 2018

U.S. Antitrust Division Chief Makan Delrahim: Making Patents Great Again?

Makan Delrahim, the leader of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice of the Trump Administration, has made several interesting comments concerning patents and the antitrust interface.  In a recent post on the Patently Obvious Blog, Professor Dennis Crouch discusses some debate concerning Mr. Delrahim’s positions as to when patent holders may create antitrust issues: “[Delrahim] explained that the DOJ’s historic approach has been a “one-sided focus on the hold-up issue” in ways that create a “serious threat to the innovative process.””  Professor Crouch includes links to documents concerning Delrahim’s positions as well as some responses. 

A few days ago, Mr. Delrahim spoke to the College of Europe in Brussels.  His speech is titled: Good Times, Bad Times, Trust Will Take Us Far: Competition Enforcement and the Relationship Between Washington and Brussels.”  Most of the speech concerns the successes of cooperation between the DG Competition and the US DOJ Antitrust Division.  However, he does note some divergence in approach concerning intellectual property:

In the intellectual property area, we each have licensing guidelines; DG Competition’s guidelines were revised in 2014; ours just last year.  Both sets of guidelines highlight the benefits of robust IP protection, the importance of innovation incentives, and the risk that certain hardcore conduct poses to competition.

Intellectual property rights and innovation are topics I have cared about for a long time.  Intellectual property rights are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and I believe that strong protection of these rights drives innovation incentives, which in turn drive a successful economy.

A deep-seated concern for protecting incentives to innovate underlies many of the changes in U.S. antitrust law over the past several decades, and it is no coincidence that we have enjoyed a period of staggering innovation over that time.  But in an ever-evolving marketplace, success is not a static outcome.  We must continue to think critically about how best to calibrate our enforcement decisions to promote competition and innovation.

As you may know from what I have said publicly, a particular concern of mine is how we use antitrust enforcement in the context of standard setting.  In particular, I worry that we 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.  We continue to better our understanding of this important field.

The dueling interests of innovators and implementers always are in tension, but the tension is best resolved through free market competition and bargaining.  And that bargaining process works best when standard setting bodies respect the intellectual property rights of technology innovators, including the very important right to exclude.  To the extent a patent holder violates its commitments to a standard setting organization, remedies under contract law, rather than antitrust remedies, are more appropriate to address licensees’ concerns.

I am aware that there may be some distance between my position and that of some of my European counterparts.  If that is the case, however, we can look to our long history of effective and productive collaboration for guidance about how to proceed.  I will make every effort to work with our counterparts at DG Competition to narrow any gap between Brussels and Washington in this area.  We must maintain our close dialogue on the cutting-edge issues—innovation, intellectual property rights, and digital markets—that will occupy much of our time in the future. Innovators and consumers in both of our unions deserve nothing less.        

Mr. Delrahim also discussed the purpose of antitrust or competition law, and digital markets:

We also continue to work to narrow the differences between us on policy and substance.  Mr. Kolasky’s speech identified a “sharp divergence” between the EU approach and “the central tenet of US antitrust policy – that the antitrust laws protect competition, not competitors.”  But since those remarks, European Commissioners have again and again affirmed their commitment to the consumer welfare standard.  Starting with then-Commissioner Mario Monti and continuing with Commissioners Neelie Kroes, Joaquin Almunia, and on to Commissioner Margrethe Vestager today, Commissioners have expressed their commitment to the same consumer welfare standard that guides U.S. competition enforcement.  As Commissioner Vestager has stated, “we don’t always do things the same way.  But I think our goals are very similar: We want to protect competition and consumers.”

This is not to say that we have overcome all of the differences between us.  We still do have differences, but we talk about them regularly and respectfully, so that we can understand what motivates them.  

For example, we have not yet closed the gap in the area of unilateral conduct. European competition law still imposes a “special duty” on dominant market players, while we in the U.S. do not believe any such duty exists.

With respect to unilateral conduct, we have particular concerns in digital markets.  We continue to advocate for an evidence-based approach based on existing theories, which are sufficiently flexible to apply to new forms of doing business in the digital economy.  Where there is no demonstrable harm to competition and consumers, we are reluctant to impose special duties on digital platforms, out of our concern that special duties might stifle the very innovation that has created dynamic competition for the benefit of consumers. 

But the benefit of our close relationship with DG Competition is that we can and do talk about these differences, making progress along the way.  For example, in the ICN’s Unilateral Conduct Working Group, we spent significant time working together to develop an Analytical Framework for Unilateral Conduct.  Even though we have different views on how dominant players should be treated, we nevertheless reached agreement on a fairly significant policy document.

Will Mr. Delrahim Make Patents Great Again? 

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