In our January 8 post, FTC’s Standards-Essential Patent Settlement: The Real “Elephant” in the Room?, we advanced the question of how much of a role regulatory turf has played in motivating the Federal Trade Commission’s recent actions regarding “standard-essential patents” (SEPs). SEPs are a major legal policy issue, and the Commission and the Justice Department both want to be the cop on the beat regarding alleged competition-related abuses of such patents.
The concept of a turf battle seems a bit more plausible to us today after reading about, and then reading, a joint Justice Department-U.S. Patent Office “Policy Statement on Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/Rand Commitments.” While not directed specifically at any case or open docket, the statement is clearly aimed at the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) and its consideration of injunction requests in cases involving SEP patents.
After five pages of extolling the purposes and virtues of SEPs, the statement offers that in “some circumstances” injunctions or exclusions “may be inconsistent with the public interest.” One page later though, the agencies state, “This is not to say that consideration of the public interest factors set out in the statute would always counsel against the issuance of an exclusion” where patents are encumbered by a F/RAND commitment. It goes on to note some of those exceptional circumstances, adding, “This list is not an exhaustive one.”
The statement also declares, “The DOJ is the executive-branch agency charged with protecting U.S. consumers by promoting and protecting competition” (emphasis ours). FTC shares the same consumer protection mission, though it is an independent, not an “executive-branch,” agency.
The DOJ/USPTO statement’s declaration of regulatory primacy, the timing of its release (one week after the FTC settlement with Google), and the statement’s complete failure to reference the very relevant Google consent decree, are certainly all very curious.
The possibility of regulatory turf battles should be of interest not only to inside-the-Beltway antitrust policy types, but also to anyone effected by government action on standards-essential patents. In its statement, DOJ/USPTO related a desire to “ensure greater certainty concerning the meaning of a F/RAND commitment.” DOJ/USPTO’s perspective on SEPs and injunctions arguably differs in some significant respects from what four FTC Commissioners said regarding the Google consent decree, fomenting, not alleviating, uncertainty from the U.S. government.