Court Upholds FTC Rule for Pharma Patent License Transfers

amurinoFeatured Expert Column – Antitrust/Federal Trade Commission

Andrea Agathoklis Murino,Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

Last November, I wrote about a new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rule which, in a change to long-standing policy, made the transfer of a license providing an exclusive licensee with “all commercially significant rights” over a patent within a therapeutic area reportable under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act. In practice, this meant that licensing agreements which previously required only the signatures of the two parties, now required a waiting period and an FTC blessing.

Shortly before the rule was to become operative, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), an industry group representing biopharmaceutical researchers and biotechnology companies sued to block it. The group argued that the FTC had not observed the appropriate procedures under the Administrative Procedures Act and that the FTC lacked authority to issue an industry-specific rule rather than a rule of general application, among other claims.

In a lengthy opinion on May 30, 2014, Judge Beryl A. Howell of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, sided with the FTC and tossed PhRMA’s claims, finding that the FTC had followed the correct processes, had a reasoned basis for creating and instituting this rule, and should be shown deference. This bottom line is this puts us right back to where the FTC hoped it would be back in November: the transfer of “all commercially significant rights” over a patent is a HSR-reportable event.

That’s the headline but there are at least two questions that result from the opinion worth pausing to consider. First, this rule continues to only apply to the pharmaceutical industry. There are virtually no other industries with HSR-specific rules applicable only to them. Does this mean the FTC plans to extend HSR-specific rules to other industries? Or is the pharma industry so important in its own right that proper antitrust enforcement demands a different set of rules? Only time will tell. More importantly, perhaps, the FTC has not defined the phrase “all commercially significant rights.” What are the contours of this definition? What’s included or excluded? How, if at all, will the FTC provide guidance to the pharma community? PhRMA has up to 60 days to appeal so this may not be the last word. Stay tuned.

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