Tying, Exclusivity, and Standard-Essential Patents

Posted by Social Science Research Network

Tying, Exclusivity, and Standard-Essential Patents

By Erik Hovenkamp (Harvard Law School)

Abstract:      When a technological standard is adopted, implementers must pay to license all “standard-essential” patents (SEPs)—those covering core features of the standard—although the particular price terms usually cannot negotiated beforehand. To allay implementers’ fear of being “held up,” SEP owners usually make commitments to offer licenses on “fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory” (FRAND) terms. Among other things, this acts as a contractual price control for SEP licenses—albeit an imprecise one that is subject to judicial interpretation.

Aside from licenses, an SEP holder may further supply an important “collateral input”—one that is not subject to the FRAND pledge, but which implementers nevertheless require in order to market a viable product. For example, this might be a physical component of the final product. The SEP holder might tie its SEP rights to the collateral input. It might also engage exclusive dealing or related practices, such as a “loyalty discounting” arrangement that imposes larger royalties on implementers who buy the input from competing providers. Importantly, FRAND’s operation as a price control significantly alters the economic analysis: here the primary impetus for tying may be to circumvent the price control by shifting the desired overcharge to the tied good—a concern that does not arise when a seller has complete autonomy over its pricing (as is usually the case). The natural result may be to foreclose competitors’ input sales.

Such restraints have received little attention in the FRAND literature, but they are an emerging concern for innovation and competition policy. They have recently been attacked in two high-profile complaints filed against Qualcomm—one by the Federal Trade Commission, and the other by Apple. Against this backdrop, this article provides a legal and economic evaluation of tying and exclusive dealing arrangements in FRAND licensing. Such practices may act to undermine the FRAND price control, potentially violating the SEP holder’s commitment. The case for antitrust intervention is harder to make, but in principle the arrangement could act to exclude actual or potential competition in the collateral input market, bringing it within antitrust’s reach. I conclude by offering several policy recommendations for how courts and standard setting organizations might address these tying and exclusivity arrangements.

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