Shubha Ghosh is the Vilas Research Fellow & George Young Bascom Professor in Business Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He is currently serving as the inaugural AAAS Science, Technology, and Policy Fellow at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C.
I attended the oral arguments on March 31 in the Kimble v Marvel case, in which the Court considers whether to overrule Brulotte v. Thys. A 1964 precedent authored by Justice Douglas, the Brulotte decision employs an amalgam of preemption and patent misuse analysis to hold that post-expiration royalty payments for patent licensing are invalid.
Judging from the oral arguments, the Court is grappling with two issues. The first is that of stare decisis. The second is what standard should replace the per se rule articulated in Brulotte if it is overruled.
Stare Decisis and Living Economists
The divisions on the Court parallel that of Leegin v Creative Products, a 2007 decision in which the Court overruled the 95 year old per se rule against minimum resale price maintenance. The Court was split five to four with Justices Kennedy writing for Justices Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, and Alito. Justice Breyer wrote in dissent with Justices Ginsburg, Souter, and Stevens signing onto his defense of precedent.
During the Kimble oral arguments, Justice Breyer defended Brulotte with an elaborate hypo involving a patent owner that locks in all potential licensees with obligations for royalty payments going beyond the term of the patent. His point: contracts can extend the exclusivity of a patent beyond its limited time. Questioning from Justices Sotomayor and Kagan suggested that they may follow the reasoning of their predecessors Justices Souter and Stevens from the Leegin decision. Justice Sotomayor wondered why changes in the viewpoint of economists should guide precedent. “What if fifty years from now economists agree that Brulotte was correct?,” she asked. Justice Kagan adopted a similar tack by asking petitioners what problems Brulotte caused that would require overruling. Even if a bad rule, she implied, knowledgeable parties can readily contract around it.
My prediction is that the final vote will parallel that in Leegin for an overruling of Brulotte. Whatever one thinks of the result, the opinion itself is not clearly reasoned with a mix of preemption and patent misuse analysis. The problem with Brulotte is that the 1979 Aronson v. Quick Point decision tempers its reasoning by allowing parties flexibility in contracting over patentable subject matter.
While there has been much criticism from economists about the rationality of the Brulotte per se rule, from a transactional perspective the real problem is that the rule provides a trap for the unwary. Justice Scalia pointed out that the beneficiaries of the rule are licensees who knowingly enter into licenses with post-expiration payment obligations hoping that the licensor does not know of Brulotte. Such seemed to be the case in the Kimble case. Such opportunistic licensees can obtain lower royalty payments knowing that any post expiration obligation would be invalid. The Brulotte rule can be transacted around or used opportunistically. In order to avoid the latter possibility, the decision should be overruled.
After Brulotte: A Reasonable Rule or a Rule of Reason?
Harder to predict is how the Justices will overrule Brulotte. The Court had an easier choice in Leegin which was a pure antitrust case. Once the Court rejects a per se rule, it is replaced with the rule of reason in antitrust cases. Petitioners were advocating a rule of reason approach as has been adopted in patent misuse cases. Justice Sotomayor questioned why antitrust principles should be introduced into patent law. If there is an antitrust problem, the licensee can just bring an antitrust claim, she suggested. Justice Breyer raised the specter of administration costs that a rule of reason approach would imply. Other justices were less vocal about what could replace Brulotte.
It is true that Brulotte is not an antitrust case. But patent misuse tracks antitrust law (for example, see the treatment of tying as misuse under 35 USC 271(d)). So the petititoners’ advocating for a rule of reason approach is appropriate and perfectly consistent with any accompanying antitrust claims to a defense of patent infringement.
What is interesting to me is how the Court might address issues of preemption. The Court has not considered an intellectual property preemption cases since 1989 even though the issue has been percolating in the lower courts in the context of licensing and contract. Part of me hopes that the Court resolves the lower court’s treatment of preemption. Realistically, neither the briefs nor the argument address the preemption issue head on. The issue should await more careful consideration of the relationship between patents and contracts.
However, if the Court does address the preemption issue, then the 1979 Aronson issue should be its guide. In that case, the Court addressed the validity of an escalator clause which created two tiers of royalties based on whether a patent was granted on an invention. When the licensee ended up paying royalties for an invention which was found to be unpatentable, it raised preemption of the escalator clause under Brulotte. The reasoning was straightforward: if royalties after patent invalidity are preempted because of conflict with the limited terms of patents, then royalties on an invention for which a patent was denied should also be in conflict. The licensee reasoned that if such contracts were upheld, an inventor would not need to seek a patent since contract could provide equivalent protection.
The Court correctly rejected the reasoning. Patents offer benefits beyond contract. Furthermore, contracting supplements patenting and does not interfere with it. So the escalator clause was upheld. But Justice Blackmun in concurrence wondered about the conflict with Brulotte. As he wrote in 1979:
[As in Brulotte], Mrs. Aronson has used the leverage of her patent application to negotiate a royalty contract which continues to be binding even though the patent application was long ago denied. The Court… asserts that her leverage played “no part” with respect to the contingent agreement to pay a reduced royalty if no patent issued within five years. Yet it may well be that Quick Point agreed to that contingency in order to obtain its other rights that depended on the success of the patent application. The parties did not apportion consideration in the neat fashion the Court adopts.
Justice Blackmun reconciles the two cases by saying that Brulotte is solely about leveraging that allows the patent owner to extend the patent term through contract. Perhaps a better reconciliation would have been to temper the leveraging analysis, grounded in patent misuse, through application of a rule of reason analysis. That course should be the one the Court adopts in Kimble after it overrules the pre se rule of Brulotte.