Guest Post By Prof. Jonathan Barnett, University of Southern California School of Law & Prof. Ted Sichelman, University of San Diego School of Law
As Patently-O has described in several posts (here, here, here), the Supreme Court is poised to decide the fate of the patent exhaustion doctrine in Impression Products v. Lexmark International. Specifically, the Court is likely to answer two important sets of questions: (1) To what extent does exhaustion limit the enforcement of contractual sale and use restrictions on downstream purchasers?; and (2) Does exhaustion apply to foreign sales? If so, how?
Oddly, although exhaustion has major ramifications for IP markets, there have been almost no formal models of the doctrine’s economic effects in the domestic context, and few models in the international context. A recent paper by one of us (Sichelman), together with two economists, Edwin Lai and Olena Ivus, provides a rigorous economic model to determine the effects of (1) a mandatory exhaustion regime, in which the patent owner essentially can never enforce downstream limitations, and (2) a presumptive exhaustion regime, in which the patent owner and a licensee/purchaser can opt out of exhaustion via contract.
Drawing from this paper and other economically oriented analysis, we recently co-authored an amicus brief in Impression Products, which argues in favor of a presumptive understanding of the exhaustion doctrine. (Interestingly, although academics are usually pegged as strongly in favor of mandatory exhaustion, our brief garnered 44 signatures—significantly more than the brief filed by professors arguing in favor of mandatory exhaustion.)
The major points of the brief and paper are straightforward.
- The “Paid Twice” Argument is Meritless: Proponents of mandatory exhaustion sometimes argue that it is improper for a patent owner to be “paid twice”—for instance, once upon the initial sale of a patented good and another time upon resale. Although this may sound plausible intuitively, it does not hold up to economic analysis. A patent owner wants to maximize profits, not prices. Multiplying royalties through a chain of purchasers will tend to increase price and therefore depress consumer demand. Thus, there are strong market constraints that restrict the royalty amount a patent owner can charge. There is no sound economic reason why in every case a patent owner should not be able to break up the profit-maximizing aggregate royalty into multiple components payable at different points on the supply chain. Indeed, economic modeling shows that these “double” payments, implemented through use-specific downstream limitations, may sometimes be essential to optimizing incentives to invent and commercialize new technologies.
- The “Restraints on Alienation” Concern is Ambiguous: The view that is generally espoused is that restraints on personal property are generally not enforced. However, much doubt has been cast on this view. Moreover, in the real property context, reasonable restraints on sale and use have been enforced for hundreds of years. This makes economic sense, especially in the patent context, because a rigorous economic treatment shows that the “restraint on alienation” concern boils down to transaction costs, including negotiation and information costs in downstream licenses and sales. The paper’s model shows that when transaction costs are high relative to the value of the underlying good—think medical device patent owner negotiating with a patient prior to a surgery—then mandatory exhaustion may yield net static benefits by eliminating the possibility of these transaction costs. However, when transaction costs are low—think a patent owner negotiating with a large computer manufacturer—then mandatory exhaustion may prevent customized deals that are economically efficient. Given the extent to which information technology and other industries rely on complex supply chains involving market participants with different needs, mandatory exhaustion may impose significant costs not justified by the benefits.
The brief and paper also consider other important aspects of the exhaustion doctrine, such as multi-component products, information asymmetries, switching costs, design-arounds, and the like. Even taking all of these wrinkles into account, the upshot is similar to that above—whether exhaustion is beneficial depends on the particular circumstances at-issue. The same arguments hold in the context of foreign sales.
Based on these considerations, the amicus brief argues that presumptive exhaustion is the best approach for balancing the benefits and costs of downstream limitations in technology markets. This approach allows a patent owner to opt out of a default exhaustion rule so long as clear notice is provided and the restrictions are otherwise legal (e.g., do not violate the antitrust laws or other public policy concerns). A mandatory, “per se” rule on the other hand assumes all downstream limitations are pernicious, when the economics show otherwise. In this regard, courts are in a suitable position to sort out reasonable from unreasonable downstream limitations, something that courts have done in the past when applying the exhaustion doctrine and, in the related antitrust law of vertical restraints, have done for 40 years since the Supreme Court’s landmark Sylvania decision.
We also argue that it is essential to allow downstream limitations to be enforced via a patent infringement suit rather than a state contract claim—otherwise, it would be too costly to bind remote downstream purchasers, injunctive relief would generally not be available, and a uniform body of federal law would not develop.
In sum, when the economics of exhaustion is carefully considered, the most sensible rule that emerges is a presumptive one that allows for reasonable limitations when clear notice is provided to downstream purchasers.