Federal Trade Commission

Whistling in the Wind? DOJ’s Unusual Statement of Interest in FTC v. Qualcomm Case Highlights Disparity Between U.S. Antitrust Agencies on FRAND, SEPs, & Competition Law

In a highly unusual move, the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) recently filed a statement of interest in the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s unfair competition case against Qualcomm. The statement asks the court to order additional briefing and hold a hearing on a remedy if it finds Qualcomm liable for anticompetitive abuses in connection with its patent licensing program. As the FTC pointed out in its short response to the DOJ, the court had already considered and addressed the question of whether liability and remedies should be separately considered, and the parties had already submitted extensive briefing regarding remedies.

The DOJ’s “untimely” statement of interest, in the words of the FTC, comes three months after a bench trial concluded in January of this year, while the parties are awaiting a decision on the merits from Judge Koh. The DOJ’s filing represents the most direct clash between the DOJ and the FTC on the issue of standard-essential patents (SEPs) subject to a commitment to license on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory terms (FRAND). The two agencies have expressed divergent positions but up until recently had not directly taken any affirmative actions in the other’s cases or enforcement activities.

Though the statement of interest notes that the DOJ “takes no position . . . on the underlying merits of the FTC’s claims,” the DOJ’s views on this subject are well known. Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Makan Delrahim has been a prominent and outspoken critic of the principal theory of the FTC’s entire case—that breach of a FRAND commitment can amount to an antitrust violation—despite the fact that legal precedent is well-settled in favor of the FTC’s position.

The Filing Represents Another Step by DOJ to Protect SEP Holders

For some time now, the DOJ has articulated a position largely hostile to the FTC’s underlying theory in its case against Qualcomm: the applicability of competition law upon a breach of a FRAND commitment. As background, SEPs are patents that have been voluntarily submitted by the owner and formally incorporated into a particular technological standard by a standard-setting organization (SSO). Because standardization can eliminate potential competitors for alternative technologies and confer significant bargaining power upon SEP holders vis-à-vis potential licensees, many SSOs require that the patent holder commit to license its SEPs on FRAND terms.

Beginning in late 2017, AAG Delrahim made a series of speeches presenting the DOJ’s new position on SEPs, FRAND commitments, and competition law. Among other issues, AAG Delrahim stated that the antitrust laws should not be used to police the FRAND commitments of SEP holders, insisting that such issues are more properly addressed through contract and other common law remedies. This new position by the DOJ was notable not only because it reversed the approach of the prior administration but also because it was largely inconsistent with numerous U.S. court decisions—including Judge Koh’s denial of Qualcomm’s motion to dismiss the FTC’s case. At a conference last week, AAG Delrahim doubled down on the DOJ’s position and stated he is looking for the “right case” to test the DOJ’s views on this issue. But if the DOJ were to press its views in court, it would find itself in a difficult and awkward position of having to argue that other cases that have ruled on these issues were wrongly decided.

In addition to the speeches, the DOJ has taken measures to implement its new approach, which up until recently, stopped short of effectively challenging the FTC. First, the DOJ opened several investigations of potential anticompetitive conduct in SSOs by companies that make devices implementing standards. Second, the DOJ withdrew its support from a 2013 joint statement issued by the DOJ and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on remedies for FRAND-encumbered SEPs because of the DOJ’s view, as explained by AAG Delrahim recently, that the policy statement “put a thumb on the scale” in favor of licensees. Third, the DOJ sought to submit another statement of interest in a private lawsuit filed by u-Blox alleging that InterDigital breached its FRAND commitments by demanding supra-competitive royalty rates for various wireless communications SEPs.

The DOJ’s current position fails to recognize the market distortion that can result when an SEP owner fails to comply with a voluntary commitment to limit those same patents rights—and the market power that is conferred on SEP holders in return for that commitment. It also fails to recognize that such policy actions ultimately will embolden certain SEP owners to engage in even more aggressive behavior at a critical period when innovative companies are beginning to incorporate wireless communications SEPs into entirely new industries, such as automobiles and the Internet of Things.

DOJ’s Filing Is Highly Unusual

The DOJ’s decision to insert itself into a case brought by another enforcement agency is exceedingly rare (although not entirely unprecedented). This is especially true because the FTC is representing the interest of consumers by acting pursuant to its authority under the FTC Act. The timing is also curious because the DOJ waited three months after the bench trial ended to file its statement, likely long after the court began drafting its opinion. The statement could be seen as a warning to the court that if it finds an antitrust violation it should not impose a remedy based on the evidence presented at trial.

The DOJ’s statement of interest further begs the question of why the agency thought it was necessary to bring itself into the case. To the extent that Qualcomm believes that the court should order additional briefing and a hearing on the issue of a remedy, even though the issue has seemingly already been addressed, Qualcomm is perfectly capable of presenting those views to the court on its own. In its response, the FTC made clear that it “did not participate in or request” the DOJ to weigh in on the case.

DOJ’s filing notes it is concerned about the risk that an “overly broad remedy” could “reduce competition and innovation in markets for 5G technology and downstream applications that rely on that technology.” But such a statement is remarkable. First, it suggests that the DOJ believes its sister enforcement agency is not concerned about fostering competition and innovation. Second, the statement suggests that the DOJ is willing to second-guess from the sidelines the judgment of both a court and competition agency that have been evaluating in detail the effect of Qualcomm’s business practices. Even if both of those positions are true, it is surprising to see the DOJ submit such a controversial filing in a matter in which AAG Delrahim is recused.

Ultimate Impact of Filing

The DOJ could have had multiple underlying motivations for choosing to submit this filing. Consistent with the split between the DOJ and FTC noted above, the DOJ could be signaling to the court that it disagrees with the FTC’s theory of competitive harm in an effort to influence the outcome on the merits. The DOJ could also be attempting to apply subtle pressure on the FTC to reach a settlement with Qualcomm to avoid drawing further attention to the two agencies’ divergent views on breach of a FRAND commitment. The statement could also be intended to discourage litigants from bringing antitrust cases premised on a breach of FRAND theory, demonstrating that, like in the u-Blox case, the DOJ is not reluctant to intervene.

However, regardless of the DOJ’s intention, its filing is unlikely to achieve any of those objectives. Judge Koh is an experienced judge who is well versed in issues at the intersection of antitrust and intellectual property law and does not shy away from ruling on difficult issues. Notably, when the FTC and Qualcomm jointly requested that she delay ruling on the FTC’s motion for partial summary judgment to pursue settlement negotiations, she denied the request and issued a significant decision holding that Qualcomm’s FRAND commitment means that it must offer licenses to its SEPs to competing chipset suppliers. Judge Koh may also exercise discretion to deny the DOJ’s statement, as the FTC pointed out in its response. More broadly, it is also unlikely that such a public airing of disagreement will go over well with an agency very focused on the state of competition in technology sectors. And the statement is also unlikely to deter private plaintiffs in light of the well-established and increasing body of case law holding that a breach of FRAND can violate competition law. The DOJ’s statement of interest, as unusual as it is, may ultimately amount to nothing more than whistling in the wind.

A Boiling Frog? Merger Enforcement of Early-Stage Tech Companies

Fable has it that a frog placed in tepid water slowly brought to a boil will not perceive danger until it is too late to leap. According to some critics, U.S. high tech merger review has a similar problem insofar as it fails to adequately consider and challenge acquisitions of startups that, on their face, appear to constitute incremental changes to competitive dynamics but that over time may suppress competition. Indeed, a U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) official confirmed last week that the agency faces “withering criticism of antitrust” and its enforcement with respect to competitor acquisitions of startup companies.

The comments were made during a conference in San Francisco by Michael Moiseyev, Assistant Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition and a leading enforcer with responsibility for merger and acquisition review. Without identifying particular transactions, he acknowledged that players in the venture capital (VC) space have characterized the U.S. antitrust agencies as “snookered” in permitting certain early-stage companies to be acquired.

Making the case that an existing competitor’s acquisition of a nascent, potential rival poses “a substantial lessening of competition” (Clayton Act, § 7) is a high hurdle for the U.S. agencies to clear. Mr. Moiseyev assessed the state of current case law as both “terrible” and “unforgiving.” The agency’s most recent challenge invoking a potential competition theory resulted in a district court concluding that the FTC had failed to provide evidence the target would have launched a new, competing technology. FTC v. Steris Corp., No. 1:2015cv01080 (N.D. Ohio 2015). In that matter, the FTC had sued and invoked the theory that the target, if it were not acquired, was poised to create “actual potential competition” for the U.S. market leader by importing technology currently offered by just one European facility. The merging parties undermined that theory by demonstrating a dearth of customer commitment to using the would-be-imported technology.

Yet criticism of a perceived lack of U.S. agency challenges in the tech sector continues to mount.

Under this pressure, will the U.S. agencies take a fresh lens to acquisitions of new and innovative competitors? The key analytical question is how to evaluate whether those companies would evolve to constrain actual, current competition. This fall, the FTC’s ongoing policy hearings devoted a day to acquisitions of potential competitors in tech markets. Nearly all participants endorsed studies of the effects of past transactions via merger retrospectives. Several panelists advised that the agencies scrutinize more closely transactions involving dominant platforms and whether the underlying deal removes a nascent competitive threat. Other participants in the hearings emphasized that the competitive analysis should focus on harms to innovation but that an information imbalance at times constrains the agencies’ ability to assess emerging industry developments.

We do not know whether a boiling frog is in our midst. Nevertheless, if you are advising VCs or a company that is considering an acquisition involving an innovative, new or potential competitor, reach out to antitrust counsel to consult on these issues.

Check Your Rates – Comply with FTC Variable Rate Marketing Guidelines

Rising Interest Rates Likely to Lead to Increased Scrutiny of Variable Rate Loan Marketing

On March 21, 2018 the Federal Reserve lifted its federal funds rate by a quarter percentage point to a range of 1.5% to 1.75%, the highest level since 2008. The Fed also significantly boosted its economic forecast and hinted that it may be more aggressive in its plan to continue to raise rates, signaling that the market should prepare for higher interest rates. For consumers with variable rate loan products, the rise in interest rates will result in the first substantial increase in loan payments in more than 10 years.

If history is our guide, the increase in interest rates will lead to an increase in consumer complaints of deceptive marketing for variable rate loan products. The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) takes such complaints seriously and has a history of investigations and enforcement actions based on deceptive marketing of financial products. For newer lenders who entered the lending marketplace after 2008, this may be the first time their variable rate marketing is scrutinized by the FTC. It’s a good time for all lenders to perform a “check-up” of variable rate marketing campaigns for compliance with the FTC’s rules and regulations and avoid allegations of deceptive or misleading ad copy.

To read the full article, click here.

DOJ and FTC Stand Their Ground on Comity Policy Despite Second Circuit’s Decision in Vitamin C Case

International Flags on poles DOJ and FTC Stand Their Ground on Comity Policy Despite 2d Circuit’s Decision in Vitamin C Case

Last September, we discussed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s opinion in In re Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation vacating a $147 million judgment against Chinese vitamin C manufacturers based on the doctrine of international comity.  That case stemmed from allegations that the defendants illegally fixed the price and output levels of vitamin C that they exported to the United States.  In reversing the district court’s decision to deny the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the Second Circuit held that the district court should have deferred to the Chinese government’s explanation that Chinese law compelled the defendants to coordinate the price and output of vitamin C.

READ MORE

Seventh Circuit Rules that Offering Different Product Package Sizes Does Not Constitute Unlawful Price Discrimination

pricing discrimination

On August 12, 2016, the Seventh Circuit ruled that a manufacturer’s decision to sell large package products to some retailers but not others does not constitute price discrimination under Section 13(e) of the Robinson-Patman Act.  Woodman’s Food Market, Inc. v. Clorox Co. and Clorox Sales Co. (7th Cir. Aug. 12, 2016) (opinion available here). The decision harmonizes Seventh Circuit law with that of other circuits and clarifies that manufacturers do not violate the promotional services or facilities requirements of the Act when they offer bulk products to some but not all purchasers.

READ MORE

FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division Request Comments on Proposed Revisions to Antitrust Guidelines for Licensing IP

After several turbulent years of litigation and policy wrangling, many have asked whether the federal antitrust agencies should rewrite their two-decade old Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property (“Guidelines”).  Should they provide clearer guidance regarding thorny questions about licensing standard essential patents (SEPs), patent assertion entities (PAEs), reverse payment settlements, or other matters that have prompted new guidelines from other enforcers around the world?  On August 12, the Federal Trade Commission and US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division responded with modest updates to the Guidelines, likely setting themselves up for considerable commentary in the weeks to come.

READ MORE

FTC Increases Maximum Civil Penalties for Violations of Competition Statutes

On June 30, 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced increases to the maximum civil penalties issuable for violations of several key competition statutes.  The agency made these changes to comply with the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015, which required the agency adjust penalty amounts for laws it enforces based on a methodology provided for by Congress.

READ MORE

Supreme Court’s Request for Views of the United States on Cert. Petition in Lamictal “Reverse-Payment” Case Flags Potential Issues for Practitioners

On Monday, June 7, the Supreme Court requested the views of the Solicitor General in connection with a petition for certiorari filed by the U.S. subsidiary of GlaxoSmithKline plc (“GSK”) in SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. King Drug Co. of Florence, No. 15-1055.  The Supreme Court’s request seems less directed to rethinking its seminal ruling in FTC v. Actavis on the lawfulness of “reverse-payment” settlements of Hatch-Waxman cases than to a concern that, in some specific ways, its decision may have created some unintended consequences.

READ MORE

FTC Provides New Guidance on Classifying Foreign Entities Under the HSR Pre-Merger Notification Program

On May 19, 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC)” issued an important clarification regarding how the agency will determine whether a foreign entity is classified as corporate or non-corporate for the purpose of the agency’s premerger notification program.[1]  Under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976[2] (also referred to as the “HSR Act”), parties to certain mergers or acquisitions must notify both the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice prior to consummating the transaction.  Under this program, whether a party to the transaction is a corporate or non-corporate entity (e.g., an LLC, partnership) can have significant implications for determining whether a filing is required and whether an exemption might apply.[3]  While evaluating party status has historically been straightforward for U.S. entities, foreign entities pose a number of challenges.

READ MORE

FTC Settles Charges of Illegal Exclusive Contracts with Medical Device Input Supplier Invibio

On April 27, 2016, Invibio—a supplier of polyetheretherketone (“PEEK”) used in medical implants—agreed to settle charges asserted by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) that its exclusive supply contracts with medical device manufacturers, including some of the world’s largest, violated Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45.[1]  This consent decree may signal a renewed interest at the agency to scrutinize exclusive contract arrangements. The decree also serves as a reminder that, while exclusive contracts are not per se unlawful, companies that have market power and use exclusive contracts face risks under the antitrust and consumer protection laws.

READ MORE

FTC Puts “Standalone” Section 5 Enforcement Approach on the Record

For the first time in its 101-year history, the Federal Trade Commission yesterday issued a policy statement outlining the extent of its authority to police “unfair methods of competition” on a “standalone” basis under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.[1]  In a terse Statement of Enforcement Principles, the Commission laid out a framework for its Section 5 jurisprudence that was predictably tethered to the familiar antitrust “rule of reason” analysis but also sets forth a potentially expansive approach to enforcement.[2]  Indeed, the Commission’s approach could encompass novel enforcement theories premised on acts or practices that “contravene the spirit of the antitrust laws” as well as those incipient acts that, if allowed to mature or complete, “could violate the Sherman or Clayton Act.”[3]  Commissioner Ohlhausen’s lone dissent recognizes these potentially disconcerting developments for private industry.[4] READ MORE

Cephalon and Teva’s $1.2 Billion Consent Order with the FTC: Is it Really a Harbinger of Things to Come?

On June 17, 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania approved a consent order (the “Consent Order”) between the Federal Trade Commission and defendants Cephalon, Inc. and its parent, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.,[1] resolved long-running antitrust litigation stemming from four “reverse payment” settlements of Hatch-Waxman patent infringement cases involving the branded drug Provigil®.  Pursuant to its settlement with the FTC (the “Consent Order”), Cephalon agreed to disgorge $1.2 billion and to limit the terms of any future settlements of Hatch-Waxman cases.[2]  The FTC and its Staff have celebrated and promoted the terms of the settlement as setting a new standard for resolving reverse-payment cases.  But their enthusiasm may be more wishful thinking than reality, and their speculation that the agreement may exert force on market behavior does not appear to be supported by a fair assessment of the state of the law.  First, the restrictions on Cephalon’s ability to enter into settlements of Hatch-Waxman cases exceed anything a court has ever required, and conflict with settlement terms apparently approved in the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal reverse-payment decision, Federal Trade Commission v. Actavis, 133 S. Ct. 2223 (2013).  Second, the FTC’s use of disgorgement as a remedy remains controversial and Cephalon, despite initial opposition, might have voluntarily embraced that remedy as part of a strategy to achieve a global resolution of remaining private litigation.  We write to put the Consent Order in perspective, so that industry participants can better assess its meaning.

READ MORE