Antitrust

Google it: Justice Department files Antitrust Case Against Google

Amanda Erickson, MJLST Staffer

Technology giants, such as Google, have the ability to influence the data and information that flows through our day to day lives by tailoring what each user sees on its platform. Big Tech companies have been under scrutiny for years, but they continue to become more powerful and have access to more user data even as the global economy tanks. As Google’s influence broadens, the concern over monopolization of the market grows. This concern peaked on October 20, 2020 when the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google for abusing its dominance in general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising markets through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices.

The Department of Justice, along with eleven state attorney generals, raised three claims in their lawsuit, all of which are under Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Department of Justice claims that, because of Google’s contracts with companies like Apple and Samsung, and its multiple products and services, such as search, video, photo, map, and email, competitors in search will not stand a chance. The complaint is rather broad, but it details the cause of action well, even including several graphs and figures for additional support. For instance, the complaint states Google has a market value of $1 trillion and annual revenue that exceeds $160 billion. This allows Google to pay “billions of dollars each year to distributors . . . to secure default status for its general search engine.” Actions like these have the potential to curb competitive action and harm consumers according to the government.

The complaint states that “between its exclusionary contracts and owned-and-operated properties, Google effectively owns or controls search distribution channels accounting for roughly 80 percent of the general search queries in the United States.” It further mentions that “Google” is not only a noun meaning the company, but a verb that is now used when talking about general searches on the internet. It has become a common practice for people to say, “Google it,” even if they complete an internet search with a different search engine. If Google is considered to be a monopoly, who is harmed by Google’s market power? The complaint addresses the harm to both advertisers and consumers. Advertisers have very little choice but to pay the fee to Google’s search advertising and general search text monopolies and consumers are forced to accept all of Google’s policies, including privacy, security and use of personal data policies. This is also a barrier to entry for new companies emerging into the market that are struggling to gain market share.

Google claims that it is not dominant in the industry, but rather just the preferred platform by users. Google argues that its competitors are simply a click away and Google users are free to switch to other search engines if they prefer. Google points out that its deals with companies such as Apple and Microsoft are completely legal deals and these deals only violate antitrust law if they exclude competition. Since switching to another search engine is only a few clicks away, Google claims it is not excluding competition. As for Google’s next steps, it is “confident that a court will conclude that this suit doesn’t square with either the facts or the law” and it will “remain focused on delivering the free services that help Americans every day.”

Antitrust laws are in place to protect the free market economy and to allow competitive practices. Attorney General William Barr stated “[t]oday, millions of Americans rely on the Internet and online platforms for their daily lives.  Competition in this industry is vitally important, which is why today’s challenge against Google—the gatekeeper of the Internet—for violating antitrust laws is a monumental case.” This is just the beginning of a potentially historic case as it aims to protect competition and innovation in the technology markets. Consumers should consider the impacts of their daily searches and the implications a monopoly could have on the future structure of internet searching.

 


Reviewing Interchange Fees: How Fifteen Years of Litigation Partially Explains the Grimace on Your Local Business Owner’s Face When You Pay for a $2.00 Product with a Credit Card

Jesse Smith, MJLST Staffer

Credit and debit cards have become a fundamental part of commerce. It’s hard to beat the perceived simplicity, convenience, and security of using a small piece of plastic or your phone to purchase goods and services. But many forget that when you swipe your card at any business that accepts cards, the merchant does not receive the full amount of the price it charges for the good or service purchased. “Interchange fees” are costs levied against a merchant by the bank that issued the card being used for payment. Until 2010, interchange fees comprised between 1%-3% of the cost of the purchase. Their described purpose is to “cover handling costs, fraud and bad debt costs, and the risk involved in approving the payment.” In recent decades, card issuers have also used interchange fees to fund popular “rewards programs” offered in the form of cashback and points to cardholders.

Interchange fees have been the subject of intense legislative and litigation controversies for the last two decades. They highlight numerous salient issues at the intersection of law, economics, and technology. In 2004, a group of merchants filed a lawsuit against Visa,  Mastercard, and their card issuing banks (In Re Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation 827 F.3d 223 (2d Cir. 2016)), alleging anticompetitive practices in how they set interchange fees and the contractual rules required of merchants who accepted their credit cards. The issues addressed in the case span multiple areas of law including corporate structure, antitrust, freedom of speech, and legislative process.

Over a decade later, the lawsuit culminated in one of the largest antitrust class action settlements in the history of the United States. To understand the history and progression of this lawsuit is to understand interchange fees more generally. I spoke to K. Craig Wildfang, a partner at Robins Kaplan LLP, and co-lead counsel for the merchants in the case. Mr. Wildfang’s explanation of the litigation and payment card industry overall provided unparalleled insight into this important aspect of how we conduct transactions in an increasingly tech driven society.

In 2004, Plaintiffs filed claims against Visa and Mastercard (who previously set interchange fee schedules), and the banks that collectively owned these card networks at the time. The lawsuit challenged the “collective setting of interchange fees” by the defendants as antitrust violations, more specifically, as price fixing conspiracies under Sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act. It also challenged anti-steering rules written into the card networks’ contracts with merchants, which prevented businesses from using discounts, surcharges, or signage to “steer” customers towards use of cheaper methods of payment, including cash or checks.

Soon after the commencement of the lawsuit, Visa and Mastercard restructured their businesses by divesting the banks from their ownership interests and offering IPOs in their companies’ stock. Doing so would cause interchange fee rate setting to resemble the actions of single entities, rather than joint conduct propagated by the banks as owners of the credit card companies. Such restructuring posed a challenge to the merchants suing, as courts historically look at single conduct less skeptically than joint conduct in an antitrust context. Undeterred, Wildfang and the merchants’ counsel leveraged this action into an additional antitrust claim under § 7 of the Clayton Act (which utilizes a lower standard of proof for anti-competitive behavior). Thus, they were able to obtain discovery that, in Wildfang’s estimation, made it “100% clear that the only reason they [restructured] was to try to minimize their antitrust liability.”

After years of litigation, mediation, and even a DOJ investigation into the defendants, in 2012, the parties finally reached a historic multibillion-dollar settlement that also saw Visa and Mastercard lift their contractual bans on steering policies. The 2nd Circuit struck down the settlement on appeal based on a conflict from the same class counsel representing the plaintiffs for both monetary and injunctive relief. Consequently, Wildfang and Robins Kaplan were appointed as counsel for 23(b)(3) plaintiffs seeking monetary relief. Undeterred by this setback, after further amended complaints, discovery, and mediation, Wildfang and class counsel achieved another victory in 2019, securing a $6.25 billion settlement for over 10 million merchants, before reductions for opt outs. Additionally, Visa and Mastercard did not reinstate any anti-steering provisions into their contracts.

While litigation was a necessary element of relief, the merchants’ counsel understood this was only part of the solution. Wildfang noted that “when we started the litigation, we knew there would be these ancillary battles, and we decided as the leadership of the litigation, that it was in the interest of our clients . . . to play a productive role in these other . . .  fora.”

In 2010, as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, Senator Richard Durbin, assisted by Plaintiffs’ counsel and other merchant trade groups, introduced an amendment granting the Federal Reserve the power to regulate debit card interchange fees. The Fed subsequently capped them at approximately 22 to 24 cents per transaction for banks with assets of $10 billion or more. In Wildfang’s assessment, limiting regulation to debit card fees was a logical starting point for legislative reform:

[I]t was much easier for the merchants to argue . . . that a debit card transaction was just an electronic check . . . it made it more appealing to the congressional people we were talking to, to think . . . “well we’re just going to recognize that these are like electronic checks, and checks don’t have interchange fees. So, let’s get rid of these, or at least cap them.” That’s something more reasonable. If you get into trying to cap or regulate credit card interchange fees, that gets a lot more complicated, because the economics of a credit card transaction are a lot more complicated. Some of the interchange revenue ends up going as rewards to cardholders, which of course, the banks always claim is a wonderful good for the consumer, but in fact, those reward dollars are coming out of pockets of other consumers who may not have a credit card.

Senator Durbin espoused this reasoning in discussing the Durbin Amendment in the Senate Congressional Record. Debit card fees are fundamentally like electronic checks, in that they deduct payment for a transaction from a customer’s checking account. The nature of these transactions largely eliminates the need for high interchange fees, as banks need not entice consumers to spend their own money with rewards programs, nor does it require the same costs incurred to mitigate the risk of a consumer refusing to pay what they owe at the end of a month, as with a credit card.

Capping debit card fees was a monumental victory for merchants. Wildfang noted:

It had been true . . . by the early two thousand teens, that debit card transactions were increasing at a much faster rate than credit card transactions, and that was true whether you were talking about numbers of transactions or transaction volume. And there were a lot of reasons for that . . . [which] made capping debit fees particularly appealing, because we knew that that was a growing piece of the pie, and it was going to continue to grow, and it has continued to grow.

The number of non-prepaid debit card transactions has increased every year from 8.3 billion in 2000, to 72.7 billion in 2018, now constituting over half of all card based transactions, as compared to a little over a quarter in 2000. With the average value of debit card sales hovering consistently in the $38-$39 range, merchants were undoubtedly spared the cost of billions of dollars in interchange fees, having to pay a max of 24 cents, rather than 1%-3% of every transaction conducted. Additionally, the effects of the Durbin Amendment went far beyond relief of the financial burden from debit card fees, igniting tangential legislative and judicial fights throughout the U.S.

Armed with an affordable card payment alternative, it became paramount for merchants to make debit card, check, and cash payment options more appealing by offering discounts for use of these payments, or imposing surcharges on more expensive types of payments. Multiple states, often lobbied by Visa and Mastercard, had either passed or were considering passing laws banning these steering practices. Repealing or preventing these laws was key, as removal of anti-steering provisions from card issuer contracts would be useless if steering were illegal in the first place. Wildfang and merchants’ counsel worked behind the scenes with counsel for plaintiffs in Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman, 137 S. Ct. 1144 (2017), where the Supreme Court ruled a New York state law banning merchants from imposing surcharges regulated speech, not conduct. While the holding did not rule on the law’s constitutionality, some believe the case may percolate back to the Court soon to reexamine a key rational basis review standard in free speech cases.

When the litigation first began, consumers paid primarily by cash, check, and magnetic stripe credit or debit cards. Since then, the menu for consumers has increased exponentially, with EMV chip cards, various digital wallets, and cryptocurrencies now permeating payment methods both online and at a physical point of sale. The increasing diversity of payment methods further served to complicate the factual and narrative landscape of the litigation, primarily by challenging the standing Plaintiffs had in the antitrust realm. Wildfang explained:

Let’s take, for example, a transaction like Apple Pay. The economics of that are facially somewhat similar to a credit card, but there are more players in the payment chain, and the impact on the merchant of those transactions is not as clear as in a simple credit . . . or debit card transaction. And you had these intermediate players, one more layer between the banks and the merchant, and as you probably know, under federal antitrust law, only the direct purchaser has standing to bring an action for damages, and the defendants had always argued from the very beginning, that merchants were indirect purchasers, because, as sort of a technical matter, the way the electronics work, the acquiring bank—the merchant’s bank, is in some sense “first in line” as the money goes through them back to the merchant.

This potential dilution of a merchant’s ability to sue as a direct purchaser underscored the need to reach a monetary settlement rather than risk losing at trial. Wildfang believes these developments will play a key role in future electronic payment litigation:

[I]t’s going to be complicated, and the release that we gave to the defendants in the second settlement is almost certain to prompt litigation. There are going to be cases brought in the future where the defendants are going to argue the release applies and protects them against those claims and so there[] [is]going to be a lot of litigation along the edges of the original case, and whether or not a particular future claim has been released or not. And I think that the technological changes are going to be probably right in among all of those cases and kind of test the boundaries of the release.

Digital wallet platforms function and release payment information differently. Google utilizes an actual account for its wallet users to “store” money in, while Apple “facilitat[es] the ordering of fund transfers,” by creating and providing secure payment tokens to the merchant, rather than actual user account information. Apple also levies a 0.15% fee on card issuers who accept Apple Pay for integration with their cards. It remains to be seen how legislatures and courts will classify these roles of differing platforms in the payment chain between consumer and merchant.

But as both merchants and card issuers deal with another party and the costs it brings to the table, numerous issues will emerge once. Will the use of a certain payment method/platform render merchants as indirect purchasers? Will card issuers use additional or new fees to offset the costs of digital wallet providers’ fees? If so, are these fees precluded from litigation by this settlement? These are just a few of countless questions that may arise “around the edges of the original case.” Regardless of if or how these specific battles arise, the dynamic nature of the payment card industry is the one constant in a sea of changing technological variables. As Wildfang summed it up, “for the first forty years or so of the payment card industry, not much changed. But in the last ten years, a lot has changed, and I think that the next five or ten years is going to bring even more change.”


Nineteen Eighty Fortnite

Valerie Eliasen, MJLST Staffer

The Sixth and Seventh Amendments affords people the right to a trial by jury. Impartiality is an essential element of a jury in both criminal and civil cases. That impartiality is lost if a juror’s decision is “likely to be influenced by self-interest, prejudice, or information obtained extrajudicially.” There are many ways by which a juror’s impartiality may become questionable. Media attention, for example, has influenced the jury’s impartiality in high-profile criminal cases.

In cases involving large companies, advertising is another way to appeal to jurors. It is easy to understand why: humans are emotional. Because both advertisement perception and jury decisions are influenced by emotions, it comes as no surprise that some parties have been “accused of launching image advertising campaigns just before jury selection began.” Others have been accused of advertising heavily in litigation “hot spots,” where many cases of a certain type, like patent law, are brought and heard.

A recent example of advertising launched by a party to a lawsuit comes from the emerging dispute between Apple Inc. and Epic Games Inc. Epic is responsible for the game Fortnite, an online “Battle-Royale” game, which some call the “biggest game in the world.” Epic sued Apple in August for violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1980 and several other laws in reference to Apple’s practice of collecting 30 percent of every App and in-App purchase made on Apple products. When Epic began allowing Fortnite users to pay Epic directly on Apple products, Apple responded by removing Fortnite from the App Store. The App Store is the only platform where users can purchase and download applications, such as Fortnite, for their Apple products. In conjunction with the lawsuit, Epic released a video titled Nineteen Eighty Fortnite – #FreeFortnite. The video portrays Apple as the all-knowing, all-controlling “Big Brother” figure from George Orwell’s 1984. The ad was a play on Apple’s nearly identical commercial introducing the Macintosh computer in 1984. This was an interesting tactic given the majority of Fortnite users were born after 1994.

Most companies that have been accused of using advertisements to influence jurors have used advertisements to help improve the company image. With Epic, the advertisement blatantly points a finger at Apple, the defendant. Should an issue arise, a court will have an easy time finding that the purpose of the ad was to bolster support for Epic’s claims. But, opponents will most likely not raise a case regarding jury impartiality because this advertisement was released so far in advance of jury selection and the trial. Problems could arise, however, if Epic Games continues its public assault on Apple.

Epic’s ad also reminds us of large tech companies’ power to influence users. The explosion of social media and the development of machine learning over the past 10 years have yielded a powerful creature: personalization. Social media and web platforms are constantly adjusting content and advertisements to account for the location and the behavior of users. These tech giants have the means to control and tailor the content that every user sees. Many of these tech giants, like Google and Facebook, have often been and currently are involved in major litigation.

The impartial jury essential to our legal system cannot exist when their decisions are influenced by outside sources. Advertisements exist for the purpose of influencing decisions. For this reason, Courts should be wary the advertising abilities and propensities of parties and must take action to prevent and control advertisements that specifically relate to or may influence a jury. A threat to the impartial jury is a threat we must take seriously.

 

 

 

 

 


Antitrust Violations Against Apple: Is the Tech Giant Operating an Illegal Monopoly?

Joe Hallman, MJLST Staffer

Apple Inc. is again under legal fire as allegations of antitrust violations against the tech giant have made it to the Supreme Court. The Court recently heard oral arguments in November of 2018 in Apple Inc. v. Pepper. Plaintiffs in the case are a class of iPhone users, and allege that Apple’s App Store, the only forum for iPhone users to download apps, creates an illegal monopoly. Apple collects 30% of all sales of apps made via its App Store; Plaintiffs argue that this is an overcharge made possible only by the unlawful monopoly. Apple claims in response that its App Store is not an illegal monopoly and that, even if it was, Apple is not a seller of goods but simply facilitates a marketplace.

The question before the Supreme Court is not whether Apple actually did violate antitrust laws, but whether iPhone users would even be able to recover damages from Apple if it did. The Court seeks to answer this question in light of Supreme Court precedent stemming from a 1977 decision in Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, in which the Court held that only direct, rather than indirect, purchasers can recover damages for antitrust violations. Here, plaintiffs argue that they directly purchase apps from Apple through its App Store, whereas Apple maintains that iPhone users are actually purchasing apps from the app developers. If the Court were to side with Apple, iPhone users would not be able to recover damages from them. Only app developers, as purchasers of the distribution service the App Store provides, could sue Apple for antitrust violations.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide the case by June of 2019. If the Court decides in favor of the plaintiffs, holding that iPhone users can recover damages from Apple, the case would be remanded to a lower court to determine whether antitrust violations actually occurred. In the future, if Apple is found to be operating an illegal monopoly it could have enormous implications. Large amounts of money are potentially at stake. It is estimated that Apple brought in $11 billion in revenue from its App Store in 2017 alone and antitrust laws permit plaintiffs to potentially recover triple damages. Beyond the dollars at stake, a decision that Apple is operating an illegal monopoly could completely change the industry. A decision of that nature could give rise to many different marketplaces that make apps available for iPhone users to download potentially lowering the price for the end users. The first step, however, is the decision to be handed down by the Supreme Court in Apple Inc. v. Pepper to determine whether iPhone users are able to sue Apple for damages.


Delay of Game: How the MLB’s Baseball Exemption has Stood the Test of Time

Alex Karnopp, MJLST Staffer 

Rushing home after a long day at law school, I eagerly anticipated tuning in to the Milwaukee Brewers match-up with their division rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. With the two teams vying for a spot in the upcoming playoffs, the game’s broadcast was, expectedly, upgraded to a national broadcast on ESPN. But as I tuned in, I couldn’t find the broadcast. I checked online, and sure enough, my Minneapolis cable provider had blocked the broadcast. They incorrectly determined I was within viewing territory of the local Fox Sports Wisconsin broadcast of the game. On top of that, my MLB.tv internet streaming subscription was blocked because of their policy of not airing national broadcasts. Despite my numerous subscriptions to ensure I could view all Milwaukee Brewers game throughout the season, I was prevented from watching one of their biggest games of the year.

To MLB fans, my situation comes to no surprise – the “black-box” broadcasting policies of the league leaves many viewers without choices, since MLB-determined blackout territories usually outreach local broadcasting territories. Cities like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Las Vegas, Nevada, fall outside any local viewing broadcast territories, yet sit between six overlapping MLB blackout areas. Complaining fans have caught the attention of the legal system. A couple recent class action lawsuits seek to challenge the MLB’s policy of entering these lucrative contracts with local broadcasting networks. However, they face difficult legal hurdles, specifically the established Baseball Exemption.  

The Baseball Exemption has been the cornerstone of the MLB’s antitrust defense since its establishment in 1922 by the Supreme Court in Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. Courts have routinely upheld the exemption, most recently in Flood v. Kuhn. They noted in this opinion, however, this exemption should be modified by “congressional, and no judicial, action.”

The two lawsuits, Laumann v. NHL and Garber v. Office of the Comm’r of Baseball, were consolidated, and sought to singlehandedly dismantle these television contracts as violations of the Sherman Act. Legal scholars expressed optimism this would end the Baseball Exemption defense as applied to broadcasting. As these scholars expected, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, on denying MLB’s motion for Summary Judgment, rejected their argument that the Baseball Exemption applied to televised broadcasting. Sensing danger, the MLB settled with the class minutes before the trial began. While conceding marginally better access to their MLB.tv proprietary internet streaming service, they preserved their blackout policy.

With their deep pockets, the MLB will continue this pattern of deferring judicial adjudication of the blackout policy by settling these class action lawsuits. If classes want to dismantle the MLB’s suspect blackout policies, they need to take the Supreme Court’s advice in Kuhn and resolve the problem via legislation. In 2015, Congress introduced the FANS Act to ensure antitrust laws applied equally among all American professional sports teams. There has been no movement since. Perhaps the lawsuit signals to Congress of the social and legal momentum to end the MLB’s blackout policies. However, these class action lawsuits will likely have no more effect than that. It will be interesting to see if Congress does anything with the introduced bill, as it appears the best route to fix this current problem.


Acquisitions of Our Lives

Zachary Currie, MJLST Staffer

 

Growing up, my mother was an avid consumer of soap operas, which aired during the daily drought of day-time television. I never watched any soap opera closely, but I occasionally stopped in the living room while one was on and caught a glimpse of the whirling melodrama—after all, the characters were beautiful, handsome, and belonged to a realm of luxury far removed from my paltry existence. The story was always the same; it was always about banal, dynastic feuding, resulting in predictable and outrageous tragedies. But never once did I think that the content of a soap opera was accurate, not in the sense of being based on a true story, but in the sense of being as realistic as a story written by Ernest Hemingway about fishing for marlin in the Gulf Stream. My perception of the quality of soap opera writing changed when I was introduced to the melodramatic world of telecommunication corporations, their acquisitions, and anti-trust law, through its latest garish episode: AT&T’s bid for Time Warner.

 

The latest episode of this soap opera involves players as glamorous, foolish, rich, and powerful as any soap opera cast. A takeover of Time Warner by AT&T would create America’s sixth largest firm by pre-tax profits; the Department of Justice has expressed its disapproval of the star-crossed lovers’ plans to elope. Some important socialites in ermine fur have hinted, with winks, that DoJ is motivated by the Donald’s hatred for CNN, a channel owned by Time Warner. Others belonging to the grapevine scoff at the match, deriding it as unsophisticated and gauche; after all, the marriage will cost over a $100 billion, return on capital is egregiously low, and attempting to increase returns by forcing Time Warner content on AT&T consumers would irritate the ever-watchful and puritanical anti-trust regulators.

So, the plot thickens: is the corporate tryst motivated by an intent to commit some dirty illegality? Well, the DoJ was suspicious and nosy enough to file a suit seeking to block the acquisition. The suit claims that after the acquisition, AT&T would be situated to force rivals to pay hundreds of millions of dollars more per year for Time Warner content, and the new formidable couple would dampen technological innovation. But is the DoJ being disingenuous? Perhaps it is motivated more by priggishness, or, maybe, political vengeance, than a concern to foster competition. Remember, this acquisition is vertical integration rather than horizontal integration; there can be good, healthy reasons for vertical integration. One way in which vertical integration can be efficient is through gaining economies of scale, when average total cost decreases with increasing output; surplus from gaining economies of scale may outweigh social costs caused by imperfect competition. Another advantage of vertical integration is the correction of market governance failures: integration allows firms to internalize the costs that arise from strategic and opportunistic behavior. Has the DoJ seriously considered all the consequences of acquisition? One anonymous attorney general claimed that the DoJ has not been forthcoming with any economic analysis helpful to decide whether to sue. Stay tuned to see the end of this Great American Corporate Love Story. Other juicy details include AT&T’s use of one of Trump’s former lawyers and Trump’s tweets about CNN (including an edited wrestling video showing Trump punching a man whose head is replaced by the CNN logo) for litigation.


Why Antitrust Must Play A Role in Analyzing Drug Patent Settlements

Michael A. Carrier, Distinguished Professor, Rutgers School of Law, MJLST Guest Blogger

Think back several years to, say, 2006 or 2008. The world of drug patent settlements, by which brand-name drug companies pay generics to delay entering the market, was a far different place. A string of appellate courts–the Second, Federal, and Eleventh Circuits–had essentially immunized these agreements by applying a toothless framework based on the “scope of the patent.” The test applied by these courts assumed that the patent was valid and infringed and that a payment for delayed entry could not violate the antitrust laws.

In the landmark case of FTC v. Actavis, 133 S. Ct. 2223 (2013), the Supreme Court rejected such a narrow view. Writing for a majority of five, Justice Stephen Breyer concluded that these settlements “tend to have significant adverse effects on competition” and could violate the antitrust laws. The Court also found that such agreements could demonstrate market power and that the parties had ways to settle other than with payment.

In contrast, writing for three Justices in dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts downplayed antitrust law in contending that “the scope of the patent–i.e., what rights are conferred by the patent–should be determined by reference to patent law.” The claimed reason is that “a patent holder acting within the scope of its patent does not engage in any unlawful anticompetitive behavior” but “simply exercis[es] the monopoly rights granted to it by the Government.”

Roberts combined his exclusive preference for patent law with the position that activity within the nominal scope of the patent is immune from the antitrust laws. A patentee “acting within the scope of its patent has an obvious defense to any antitrust suit: that its patent allows it to engage in conduct that would otherwise violate the antitrust laws.” And even though he viewed “the question posed” as “fundamentally a question of patent law,” he lamented that “the majority declares that such questions should henceforth be scrutinized by antitrust law’s unruly rule of reason.”

My short article in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology highlights three significant flaws with Roberts’ opinion. First, Roberts ignored the patent-law policy of challenging and eliminating invalid patents. Second, he downplayed the role of antitrust law. And third, he neglected the importance of the Hatch-Waxman Act, Congress’s resolution of the patent-antitrust intersection in the pharmaceutical industry.

First is patent law. Empirical studies have consistently shown that at least 40% of patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) that are litigated to decision are invalid. For that reason, the Actavis Court recognized the “patent-related policy of eliminating unwarranted patent grants so the public will not ‘continually be required to pay tribute to would-be monopolists without need or justification.'” Roberts’ suggestion to decide the issue solely on the grounds of patent law does not include this important aspect of patent policy.

Second is antitrust law. As the majority in Actavis recognized, reverse-payment settlements “tend to have significant adverse effects on competition.” Of all the types of business activity subject to the antitrust laws, agreements by which competitors divide markets could be the most dangerous since market division restricts all competition between the parties on all grounds.

Reverse-payment settlements result in generics dropping patent challenges and, in exchange for millions of dollars, agreeing to delay entry into the market. Because the brand makes more by keeping the generic out of the market than the two parties would receive by competing in the market, the parties have an incentive to cede the market to the brand firm and split the monopoly profits.

Third is the regulatory regime. As the Supreme Court has made clear, it is appropriate for courts applying antitrust law to “be attuned to the particular structure and circumstances of the industry at issue.” Congress resolved the tension between the patent and antitrust laws in the pharmaceutical industry by enacting the Hatch-Waxman Act.

The Act had a central purpose of encouraging challenges to invalid or not infringed patents during the term of the patent to encourage early market entry. Reverse-payment settlements directly contravene this goal by allowing brands to pay generics for delayed market entry. In short, not only does such conduct flout the patent policy of testing invalid patents and present significant antitrust harm, but it also disregards the Hatch-Waxman Act and important public-policy goal of increasing the number of affordable generic medicines.

As courts begin to interpret drug patent settlements in the wake of Actavis, they should not follow the approach to patent and antitrust law articulated by Chief Justice Roberts. For in addition to being rejected by the Supreme Court, it (1) shortchanges patent law, which includes a policy goal of testing invalid patents to ensure they do not block competition; (2) downplays antitrust law’s role in monitoring behavior that resembles market division between potential rivals; and (3) ignores the Hatch-Waxman Act’s encouragement of challenges to patents that are invalid and not infringed.


Trusting Antitrust Law: Anti-Competitive Agreements in the Technology Industry

by Mayura Iyer, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Recently, the District Court of the Northern District of California certified a group of plaintiffs as a FRCP 23(b)(3) class in the High-Tech Employee Antitrust Litigation case. This case is a consolidation of five underlying cases instituted by individual plaintiffs against Adobe Systems, Inc., and the class action is now taking on some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley, including Apple, Google, Intel, and Pixar.

The plaintiffs, a group including software and hardware engineers, programmers, and other employees of the high-tech industry, are relying on principles of antitrust law to show that their employers made unlawful, anti-competitive agreements. They are alleging that their employers engaged in a conspiracy to eliminate competition for skilled labor by entering into agreements with each other that prohibited them from poaching each other’s employees. Interestingly, all the companies involved were either associated with Steve Jobs, former Apple CEO, or shared at least one common director with Apple’s Board of Directors, suggesting a concerted effort among executives of these companies.

As a result of these agreements, wages for technical professionals like the plaintiffs have been artificially suppressed, since the employers have created a non-competitive environment for recruiting employees. With the class potentially including 64,000 plaintiffs, these companies are likely to settle. However, if any of these claims do go through to trial, the defendants will likely have large hurdles in their path, since there is electronic documentation of communications between executives acknowledging the existence and potential illegality of their gentlemen’s agreements.

These agreements have stifled competition within the technology industry by limiting the forces of the free market. The best talent was not allowed to be competitively recruited, thus devaluing those employees and consequently, likely suppressing innovation. Regardless of whether these cases are resolved through settlements or through trial, the fact that these back-door agreements have been brought to light is likely to change the landscape of the technology industry in a major way. Breaking the cycle of these anti-competitive practices will likely change the ways in which employees in this sector are recruited and compensated and perhaps will also encourage innovation and the transfer of ideas. While these companies will likely still be able to protect themselves through other safeguards such as non-compete clauses, perhaps now the scales of the technology industry will tip further towards equalizing the power between the employers and their most invaluable intellectual resources, their technical employees.