Antitrust issues in IP licensing: competing guidelines

ftcVia the IP Finance blog comes news of a proposed update to the current US Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property, which date from 1995. Although he has read the US guidelines in the past, IP Draughts is much more familiar with the equivalent European Commission Guidelines and the associated block exemption regulation for technology transfer agreements.

The European rules seem to require much more attention for run-of-the-mill licence agreements than the US rules require. He doesn’t recall ever having had a US lawyer refer him to the US guidelines in relation to a transaction under negotiation that included a US territory, whereas European lawyers working on a licensing transaction will frequently have recourse to the EU guidelines and block exemption regulation when the territory of the licence includes all or part of the EU.

Looking at the redline version of the proposed US guidelines, issued by the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission, IP Draughts had several thoughts:

  1. The US guidelines are more positive about the pro-competitive effects of licensing than the EU guidelines. To take one detailed example, bans on the licensee selling competing products may be acceptable under the US rules (eg see section 4.1.2.1 of the guidelines), but would ring alarm bells in an EU setting, particularly if the competing product was developed by the licensee (eg see section 4.2.7 of the EU guidelines and Article 5(2) of the block exemption). In the absence of careful and detailed economic analysis, IP Draughts would need strong persuading that such a restriction could safely be included in an EU licence agreement.
  2. Many of the proposed changes to the 1995 US guidelines are technical and don’t make major changes to the antitrust analysis of licence agreements. Where substantive changes are made, they tend to move the guidelines in a more liberal direction, that is to say taking a more positive attitude to licensing. For example, the discussion of resale price maintenance indicates that vertical price restraints in licence agreements will be treated under the rule of reason rather than as per-se illegal, following an important Supreme Court decision in 2007.
  3. Particularly helpful to the practitioner are comments in the US guidelines about the main concern being horizontal agreements between competitors. As most IP licensing is not between competitors, and often has no horizontal element, this provides a very useful context to the analysis set out in the document. By contrast, though the EU guidelines express greater concerns about agreements between competitors, there are plenty of rules about agreements between non-competitors, eg in the block exemption, and no general suggestion that vertical agreements are to be treated much more favourably than horizontal ones.
  4. Not only are the US guidelines more positive about IP licensing, they are also more helpful than the equivalent EU guidelines in explaining, with numerous illustrative examples, where no significant antitrust issue will arise. By contrast, the EU guidelines use up far too much space in simply regurgitating what is permissible under the technology transfer block exemption.
  5. Where shall we three meet again? In Brussels or in Luxembourg?

    Where shall we three meet again? In Brussels or in Luxembourg?

    IP Draughts has heard it said that the thinking of those in the European Commission who are responsible for antitrust policy is strongly influenced by the approach of the US authorities. Certainly some of the economic concepts that are seen in the US guidelines, such as innovation and technology markets, have found their way into the EU guidelines and block exemption. But the way in which those concepts are used has a very different flavour in the EU model. It is as though the US concepts have been mixed up in the cooking pot with the desire to promote the EU single market, deep suspicion about IP rights generally as a monopolistic  right, a lack of experience of routine licence agreements, and a Mediterranean statist approach.

  6. IP Draughts was reminded that the US guidelines include a “safety zone” for certain types of agreement, which could be viewed as analogous to the EU block exemption regulation or to the EU Notice on Agreements of Minor Importance. Section 4.3 of the US guidelines places in the safety zone, among other agreements, licence agreements that meet both of the following criteria: (1) they are not “facially anticompetitive” – ie don’t include really bad terms; the equivalent expression in EU law is “hardcore clauses”; and (2) the collective market share of the parties does not exceed 20%. Where market shares cannot be determined, eg in some technology or R&D markets, an alternative to item (2) is that there are at least 4 competing technologies or 4 other parties that can engage in competing R&D.
  7. However, IP Draughts doubts whether this safety zone will be used much, given the more tolerant approach of the US guidelines to most IP licence agreements.

The differences between the US and EU approaches are sometimes found surprising by US clients and their US lawyers. Two points in particular may cause surprise: (1) the extent to which EU lawyers spend time looking at what is permissible under the relevant block exemption (there are other block exemptions for R&D agreements and for distribution agreements, among others), and (2) the difficulty of achieving legal certainty as to whether particular terms will be acceptable under EU antitrust laws. The unsatisfactory state of EU law may make it impossible for their lawyers to provide a quick, cheap and reliable answer to the antitrust questions that arise.

 

 

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Filed under Competition law, Legal Updates, Licensing

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