Chillin'Competition

Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

Thoughts on Transfer of Technology, and More

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At today’s GCLC lunch talk on transfer of technology agreements, a number of thoughts sprung to mind. Here they are.

  • As part of our professional ethics, we competition lawyers should stop saying that IP confers a form of “monopoly” on its owner. Like property rights over tangible goods, IP – I talk here essentially of patents – confers property. A patent confers property over the usage of technical specifications, full stop. But – and this is a big But – IP does not imply, as the term monopoly suggests, the absence of alternative technical specifications. On many markets, several IP compete for a given product, service, functionality.
  • Aren’t we over-regulating the issue of standard-essential patents? There’s no robust evidence that patent thickets are a widespread + harmful phenomenon. However, as a result of the mass-mediatization of several cases, and of the possible inability of the Commission to deal with those cases swiftly and thoroughly, we are heading towards the adoption of general rules in a range of soft law instruments. Last year, we got a new section on standardisation in the Guidelines on Horizontal Cooperation Agreements. The upcoming revised TTBER and its set of accompanying Guidelines may just bring about more rules. As a matter of principle, I would question such an approach, absent empirical case-related evidence.
  • The use of “double negatives” in the list of hardcore restrictions should be avoided. D. Woods said the Commission would make some thinking on this. And I trust most EU competition law students would be grateful if the Commission made progress on this.
  • The SEP=SMP shortcut is misconceived. It fails to grasp that several standards, or non-standardized technologies can compete for a given functionality, product, service. Moreover, standardization is a repeated game, so any attempt by a SEP holder to raise fees may be sanctioned at a later stage by other standard participants. And finally, SEP holders must often obtain licences from other SEP holders.
  • A speaker made the point that it would be counterintuitive if participants to patent pools had to pay experts to determine on an ongoing basis whether the patents are valuable (or not) and in turn should (or not) stay in the pool. It is indeed a little weird to pay someone and entrust him with the mission, and power, to kick you out. And there are other risks: conflict of interest, bribes, etc.  But aren’t most trade associations  paid by their members, and yet keep a right to exclude participants if the membership conditions are no longer met?
  • A  popular policy argument to discard the need (and legitimacy) of antitrust intervention is that contemplated market failures are caused by regulatory frameworks. And the argument logically follows that regulatory defects should be solved by bringing changes to the regulatory framework, not by applying the competition rules.  This argument has been made in virtually all sectors of the economy that have attracted antitrust scrutiny in the past decades, e.g. pharma, financial markets, telecoms, etc. I have, myself, made this point in a number of papers, but I have second thoughts on it now. Whilst I still believe that pieces of legislation adopted under a fully democratic procedure should not be undermined by ex post bureaucratic competition enforcement, I am also a pragmatist. In this respect, I tend to consider that antitrust enforcement may bring quicker, and better fixes, than protracted regulatory action (for instance, a reform of the IP system in the case of patent thickets). Plus antitrust enforcement is more reversible than regulatory action (in case of mistake). And finally reforms of regulatory regimes just have corrective effects for the future, and do not address existing problems…

Written by Nicolas Petit

22 June 2012 at 6:49 pm

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