Competition, Inalienability, and the Economic Analysis of Patent Law


  • Erik Hovenkamp
Publish Date:
March 13, 2018
Publication Title:
Stanford Technology Law Review
Stanford University
Place of Publication:
Stanford, California
Journal Article Volume 21 Issue 1
  • 21 Stan. Tech. L. Rev. 33 (2018)

Related Organization(s):


Most influential economic theories about private disputes, including the Coase theorem, assume that there are no legal restraints on alienability. However, the parties to a patent dispute are often competing firms, and their private dealings may thus be constrained by the antitrust laws. Antitrust prohibits private transactions that allocate commercial rights in ways that unreasonably subvert competition between the parties. This creates an asymmetry between (1) the allocations of rights that the parties can effect through contract; and (2) those a court can effect through its judgment. For example, antitrust may condemn a “reverse payment” settlement in which a monopolist-patentee pays an accused infringer to stay off the market for several years. But if the dispute were litigated to judgment, a court could produce the same exclusionary outcome by issuing an injunction. The result is ultimately that, in contrast to familiar Coasean logic, a court’s delimitation of patent rights can influence the final allocation of such rights, even if the parties can bargain. Further, the parties may (rationally) litigate to judgment even if they have common expectations about litigation, and even if they are perfectly capable of entering into a lawful settlement ex ante.

Antitrust limits on alienability may thus critically alter the nature of a private dispute, distinguishing it from the more conventional property conflicts studied in classical law and economics. Aside from altering the parties’ incentives and behavior, it changes the appropriate normative policies toward settlement and litigation. The parties may be settling not simply to avoid litigation costs, but rather to avoid a pro-competitive judgment they cannot lawfully bargain around (e.g. patent invalidation), or to obtain a judicial stamp on what would otherwise be an unenforceable contract. As such, when a proposed settlement concerns rights that are not entirely alienable, the court should carefully review its terms to ensure they do not defy the relevant inalienability rule. Unfortunately, the patent courts have missed this important point (although it has been recognized implicitly in some other areas of law). They continue to treat patent suits as ordinary private conflicts over fully-alienable rights, approving virtually all settlement proposals as a matter of course. I explain the benefits of reviewing patent settlements in certain cases, and I offer a detailed account of how such review ought to operate in practice.