The Licensing Function of Patent Intermediaries

By: John E. Dubiansky

The contemporary patent marketplace is a complex ecosystem comprised of innovators and manufacturers who are often connected by a varied group of intermediaries. While there are a variety of intermediary business models—such as patent assertion entities and defensive aggregators—each facilitates a variant of a similar licensing transaction, connecting a set of patents held by a patent owner with a product or service offered by a prospective licensee. One explanation for the prevalence of intermediaries is that they engage in practices tantamount to arbitrage, acquiring patents and then licensing them at a profit because they enjoy greater success in patent litigation than patent holders would on their own. This paper advances an additional explanation: some intermediaries may serve a function analogous to a platform trading in non-exclusive licenses, overcoming search and valuation costs to facilitate licensing.
This paper focuses on the use of two contract terms in intermediaries’ dealings with technology market participants: revenue sharing in patent acquisition and non-exclusive licensing. The Federal Trade Commission’s Patent Entity Activity Study reported that intermediaries used both of these terms. Building on those findings, this paper argues that intermediaries that use both provisions may, under some conditions, operate in a manner analogous to a two-sided platform. First, this paper examines how participants in a technology market would value non-exclusive licenses granted ex post, after the licensed product is already on the market. The paper argues that—in addition to the avoidance of litigation costs— the reduction of uncertainty can also drive licensee demand. Next, the paper proposes that use of revenue sharing allows patent holders to experience network effects from the number of prospective licensees accessed through the intermediary, which may make the intermediary more attractive than licensing unilaterally. Finally, this paper argues that the conduct of a patent licensing intermediary using these contract features can be analogized to the practices of other licensing intermediaries such as performing rights organizations and patent pools. These observations suggest that one explanation for the success of some intermediary models—as well as one aspect of their conduct that may influence competition in technology markets—is their ability to connect patent holders and prospective licensees with a greater number of potential trading partners than they would otherwise be able to connect with on their own.
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Cite: 15 Duke L. & Tech. Rev. 292

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