Tenth Circuit holds IPRs defense available to rebut a refusal to deal antitrust claim

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 31 October 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit (the “Court of Appeals”) held that the invocation of IPRs is a presumptively valid business justification sufficient to rebut a refusal to deal claim.

The case involved a dispute between a software company and the developer of aviation terminal charts (which provide pilots with the information necessary to navigate and land at a specific airport). The developer holds copyrights for portions of its charts, which use a proprietary format. The parties negotiated and executed a license and cooperation agreement under which the developer would waive its standard licensing fee and grant the software company access to proprietary products that facilitate the integration of the developer’s terminal charts into third-party systems. In exchange, the software company would create a data management reader that works in conjunction with an e-book viewer. After the execution of the agreement, the software company registered with Apple as a software application developer and requested the necessary toolkit from the developer to develop an app. The developer did not provide the toolkit. Rather, it announced it had created its own app, offered to its customers at no additional cost beyond their terminal chart subscription fee.

The software development company sued the developer. The district court granted summary judgment for developer on the antitrust claims but denied summary judgment on the remaining claims for loss of profits, awarding more than $43 million in damages. The developer appealed, challenging only the district court’s ruling related to the loss of profits. The software company cross-appealed, challenging the dismissal of its antitrust claims, alleging a single anticompetitive conduct consisting in a refusal to deal, in violation of § 2 of the Sherman Act.

To determine whether a refusal to deal violates § 2, the Court of Appeals first looked at market power in the relevant market, in which the court assumed that the developer enjoyed monopoly power. Second, the Court of Appeals looked at the use of the product, and concluded that the assertion of IPRs is a presumptively rational business justification for a unilateral refusal to deal. In its legal reasoning, the Court of Appeals relied on the approach taken by both the First and Federal Circuits in Data General and Xerox, respectively. In Data General, the First Circuit held that while exclusionary conduct can be pursued by refusing to license a copyright, an author’s desire to exclude others from use of its copyrighted work is a presumptively valid business justification for any immediate harm to consumers. In Xerox, a Federal Circuit declined to examine the defendant’s motivation in asserting its right to exclude under the copyright laws, absent any evidence that the copyrights were obtained by unlawful means or used to gain monopoly power beyond what provided for by the law. Quoting Novell and Trinko, the Court of Appeals also recognized the existence of a limited exception, available only where the plaintiff can establish the parties had a preexisting, voluntary, and presumably profitable business relationship, and its discontinuation suggests a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve anti-competitive ends. On this last point, the Court of Appeals held that the software developer did not present any evidence.

Therefore, it concluded that the developer did not have an independent antitrust duty to share its intellectual property with the software company. Consequently, it reversed and vacated the jury’s award of lost profits, but affirmed the partial summary judgment on software company’s antitrust claims.

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