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Archived updates for Monday, September 26, 2005

Package Licensing Not Per Se Patent Misuse

In U.S. Philips Corp. v. ITC (Fed. Cir.; September 21, 2005), the appellate court disagreed with the line of analysis employed by the International Trade Commission in concluding that Philips’s package licensing agreements were patent misuse per se, or under the rule of reason:

In light of the efficiencies of package patent licensing and the important differences between product-to-patent tying arrangements and arrangements involving group licensing of patents, we reject the Commission’s conclusion that Philips’s conduct shows a "lack of any redeeming virtue" and should be "conclusively presumed to be unreasonable and therefore illegal without elaborate inquiry as to the precise harm they have caused or the business excuse for their use." N. Pac. Ry. Co. v. United States, 356 U.S. 1, 5 (1958). We therefore hold that the analysis that led the Commission to apply the rule of per se illegality to Philips’s package licensing agreements was legally flawed.

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Under the rule of reason, the finder of fact must determine if the practice at issue is "reasonably within the patent grant, i.e., that it relates to subject matter within the scope of the patent claims." If the practice does not "broaden the scope of the patent, either in terms of covered subject matter or temporally," then the patentee is not chargeable with patent misuse. More specifically, "the finder of fact must decide whether the questioned practice imposes an unreasonable restraint on competition, taking into account a variety of factors, including specific information about the relevant business, its condition before and after the restraint was imposed, and the restraint’s history, nature and effect." Va. Panel, 133 F.3d at 869, quoting State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3, 10 (1997); see also Monsanto Co., 363 F.3d at 1341.

The Commission’s rule of reason analysis is flawed for two reasons. Most importantly, its conclusion was largely predicated on the anticompetitive effect on competitors offering alternatives to the four so-called nonessential patents in the Philips patent packages. Yet, . . . the evidence did not show that including those patents in the patent packages had a negative effect on commercially available technology. The Commission assumed that there was a foreclosure of competition because compact disc manufacturers would be induced to accept licenses to the technology covered by the [non-essential] Farla and Iwasaki patents and therefore would be unwilling to consider alternatives. As noted, however, there was no evidence before the Commission that any manufacturer had actually refused to consider alternatives to the technology covered by those patents or for that matter that any commercially viable alternative actually existed.

In addition, as in its per se analysis, the Commission did not acknowledge the problems with licensing patents individually, such as the transaction costs associated with making individual patent-by-patent royalty determinations and monitoring possible infringement of patents that particular licensees chose not to license. The Commission also did not address the problem, noted above, that changes in the technology for manufacturing compact discs could render some patents that were indisputably essential at the time of licensing arguably nonessential at some later point in the life of the license. To hold that a licensing agreement that satisfied the rule of reason when executed became unreasonable at some later point because of technological development would introduce substantial uncertainty into the market and displace settled commercial arrangements in favor of uncertainty that could only be resolved through expensive litigation.

Finally, the Commission failed to consider the efficiencies that package licensing may produce because of the innovative character of the technology at hand. Given that the technology surrounding the Orange Book standard was still evolving, there were many uncertainties regarding what patents might be needed to produce the compact discs. As noted, package license agreements in which the royalty was based on the number of units produced, not the number of patents used to produce them, can resolve in advance all potential patent disputes between the licensor and the licensee, whereas licensing patent rights on a patent-by-patent basis can result in continuing disputes over whether the licensee’s technology infringes certain ancillary patents owned by the licensor that are not part of the group elected by the licensee.

We therefore conclude that the line of analysis that the Commission employed in reaching its conclusion that Philips’s package licensing agreements are more anticompetitive than procompetitive, and thus are unlawful under the rule of reason, was predicated on legal errors and on factual findings that were not supported by substantial evidence. For these reasons, we cannot uphold the Commission’s decision that Philips’s patents are unenforceable because of patent misuse under the rule of reason.

Because the Commission did not address all of the issues presented by the administrative law judge’s decision under both the per se and rule of reason analysis, further proceedings before the Commission may be necessary with respect to whether Philips’s patents are enforceable and, if so, whether Philips is entitled to any relief from the Commission. Accordingly, we reverse the Commission’s ruling on patent misuse for the reasons stated, and we remand this case to the Commission for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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