Striking the Right Balance: Following the DOJ’s Lead for Innovation in Standardized Technology
Today’s technology standards are the result of an extraordinary amount of innovation, collaboration and competition. These concepts are interrelated and each is enhanced or enabled by intellectual property. Where these three concepts come together in standards development, it is unsurprising that antitrust concerns are also present. Specifically, the interests of contributors, participants, and implementers must be fairly balanced to ensure that the appropriate types and levels of innovation, collaboration, and competition can occur – and that the public will benefit therefrom. It is important that antitrust enforcement involving standards development organizations and owners of standards essential patents recognize the careful balance of these three concepts. If antitrust enforcement elevates one goal – say competition – at the expense of collaboration and innovation, or if one set of actors in the standards development ecosystem – for example, implementers – is preferred over the other actors, there will likely be devastating effects on the standards development ecosystem.
The tension between innovation, collaboration, and competition in the standards development arena, as well as the divergent interests of contributors, participants, and implementers are not new. The two agencies charged with enforcing competition policy in the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice, Antitrust Division (DOJ), have long wrestled with promoting both innovation and competition, as well as understanding how collaboration can enhance these ideas. Although the policies regarding innovation, competition, and collaboration have historically bounced around, when considering standardized technology, both the FTC and DOJ have recently shifted the balance in favor of implementers and acted in ways that created impediments to innovation (and thus ultimately competition and collaboration) in the standards development area. Between 2015 and 2019, however, the viewpoints of these two agencies diverged. The FTC continued to rely on outdated perspectives and theories that have been called into question. In doing so, the FTC has favored implementers over contributors in ways that are harmful to innovation. On the other hand, the DOJ (under Makan Delrahim) recognized that its previously-held viewpoints are obsolete and was actively seeking to reset the balance between competition and innovation, between innovator and implementer. This paper argues that we must look carefully at the underlying policies driving the agencies’ behavior, both the outmoded viewpoints that the FTC is pressing as well as the innovation-positive perspective that has shaped the DOJ’s actions in recent years. By amplifying the modern perspective and focusing on creating the right incentives for the right reasons, future imbalances that harm innovation, collaboration, and competition in the standards world can be avoided.