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The Changing Face of Antitrust Law: U.S. Supreme Court Abandons Long-Standing Antitrust Rule

Bundling arrangements, such as requiring a purchaser of an inkjet printer to also buy all paper and replacement ink cartridges from the printer's manufacturer, may now be lawful for the first time under a major new U.S. Supreme Court antitrust decision. . Want a car? You might be required to buy all the oil, tires and other replacement parts from the car's manufacturer. Maintenance of the car may have to be done at the manufacturer's related dealership as well. These suggested bundling arrangements may be on their way as the result of the Illinois Tool Works decision.

On March 1, 2006, the need for a decision collided at the intersection of antitrust and intellectual property. As a result, in Illinois Tool Works, Inc., et al. v. Independent Inc., No. 04-1329, the Supreme Court of the United States threw out a near-half century old antitrust rule which made it difficult for owners of patents and copyrights to tie sales of their products to other products'' sales.

The old, now-abandoned rule created a presumption the patent holder had "market power." "Market powers" presence is a major hurdle for plaintiffs to overcome to prove a Sherman Act violation. See, International Salt Co. v. United States, 68 SCt 12 (1947) (first U S Supreme Court case holding patent tying violated Sherman Act); United States v. Loews, 83 SCt 97 (1962) (established an express legal presumption of market power exists when the original, or "tying," product is patented).

Precedent Undone

Under a series of decisions stretching back more than four decades, the Court repeatedly held a patent or copyright created a presumption of market power which prevented the maker of a patented or copyrighted product from requiring its purchasers to buy another tied product. If a maker did so, it violated § 1 of the Sherman Act. The Court's ruling in Illinois Tool dropped the major parts of this presumption of market power, and granted owners of intellectual property rights much more latitude to bundle their products with other goods or services.

The Illinois Tool Works antitrust claim arose from a patent infringement suit filed by a division of Illinois Tool Works. Illinois Tool Works manufactures patented inkjet printers used by other companies to print bar codes on cartons. The license agreement conditioned use of the product on the purchase of replacement ink only from Illinois Tool Works.

Independent Ink, of California sells replacement ink that costs less than Illinois Tool Works'' ink, and works in all Illinois Tool Works'' printers. In 1997, Illinois Tool Works'' sued Independent Ink for patent infringement. Independent Ink's 1998 suit sought declaratory judgment of non-infringement and invalidity of Illinois Tool Works'' patents. Independent Ink later added allegations that Illinois Tool Works was engaged in a "tying" in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act.

The Appeals Courts and Final Results

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit begrudgingly found in favor of Independent Ink noting it was bound by Supreme Court precedent.

The Supreme Court's unanimous Opinion, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, indicated the underlying rationale for the presumption was a desire to stop tying. However, in recent years, the Court repeatedly rejected this negative view of tying.

The Court held: "Congress, the antitrust enforcement agencies and most economists have all reached the conclusion that a patent does not necessarily confer market power upon the patentee. Today, we have reached the same conclusion, and therefore hold that, in all cases involving a tying arrangement, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant has market power in the tying product."

Risks in the Result

Although many may hail the Court's Opinion, there is concern whether the Court went too far. The danger is without some type of presumption, perhaps even a rebuttable presumption of antitrust activity, many smaller companies cannot afford to vindicate their rights against antitrust violators.

For instance, Independent Inc., a 35-person firm, must now either drop its lawsuit or wage an expensive uphill battle trying to prove Illinois Tool Works has market power over industrial bar code printers. If Independent Inc. elects not to continue, there will be no way for customers to get the benefit of an unbundled marketplace for the ink and printing products they need. Extended across the economy, this outcome threatens more consolidation and far less far-market opportunity for small and independent businesses.

Categories: Antitrust Law

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