First, courts have recognized that not every type of conduct that may enhance a business’s market power is actionable, such as when the application of Section 2 would impose a duty that contravenes the policies of the antitrust laws themselves.
Second, the Supreme Court has cautioned against antitrust standards that would create an unacceptable risk of “false positives” or condemnations of lawful pro-competitive conduct.
There is no duty under the antitrust laws for a patent holder to license on FRAND terms, even after having committed to do so. A FRAND commitment is a contractual representation that a patent holder will license on “fair,” “reasonable,” and “non-discriminatory” terms. It is not the same as a promise to pay a specific price in a final contract. Indeed, commentators have noted that by failing to specify a specific price, a FRAND commitment is an incomplete contract term.
To be clear, a FRAND commitment may create a duty under contract law to fulfill that obligation, and courts may be tasked with determining the relevant FRAND rate where parties disagree over this contract term. Section 2, however, is agnostic to the price that a patent-holder seeks to charge after committing to such a term. Breaking down “FRAND” by its component terms makes clear why this is so.
First, the Sherman Act does not police “fair” prices or competition; it protects the competitive process. Judge Easterbrook once asked, “Who says that competition is supposed to be fair, that we judge the behavior of the marketplace by the ethics of the courtroom? . . . When economic pressure must give way to fair conduct . . . rivals will trim their sails”; introducing conceptions of “fairness” into the Sherman Act “is to turn antitrust law on its head.”
Second, having undertaken a contractual duty to charge “nondiscriminatory” rates, the Sherman Act does not compel a patent-holder to abide by this promise. The Sherman Act is indifferent to price discrimination; indeed, in some circumstances price discrimination may be pro-competitive.
Third, the Sherman Act does not authorize courts to determine “reasonable” licensing rates. The Supreme Court has emphasized repeatedly that antitrust law does not recognize a cause of action that would “require antitrust courts to act as central planners, identifying the proper price, quantity, and other terms of dealing—a role for which they are ill-suited.”
It, therefore, would be a mistake to infer that a contractual FRAND commitment somehow establishes a duty under the antitrust laws to license on terms demanded by a licensee or that violations of an ambiguous FRAND term become an antitrust violation.