Anticompetitive Use of Administrative Trials in Bargaining Over Patent Rights

December
2016
Susan Navarro Smelcer
In response to widespread concerns about the extent to which “trolls” distort the patent process and other deficiencies in the patent system, Congress created two new administrative trial processes by which a third party may challenge the validity of a patent in a more streamlined and less costly way than through a civil trial. Unfortunately, the very features that made these administrative quasi-judicial proceedings efficient also make them ripe for anticompetitive abuse. This behavior is especially problematic when it comes to bargaining over licenses for patents recognized as a “standard” or deemed to be “essential” to a particular industry. In this context, instituting administrative trials to determine patent validity may actually create an inequality in bargaining strength that allows the potential licensee to extract rents from the patent holder—especially if that licensee possesses market power.
 
This Note explores the source and nature of these anticompetitive harms and recognizes that, as currently applied by the courts, antitrust law cannot be used to reach these abuses. Noerr-Pennington immunity shields firms from exposure to antitrust liability with respect to most government interactions, with only narrow exceptions for sham petitioning and litigating activity. In the patent context, these exceptions are far too narrow and make antitrust liability functionally unobtainable. In particular, this Note argues that the “sham litigation” exception to Noerr-Pennington should be expanded to encompass a wider range of litigation tactics—including instituting an administrative proceeding—to deter anticompetitive behavior that distorts both bargaining over patent licenses and the market more broadly.

 

This article appears in the December 2016 Issue: Volume 91, Number 6