Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Lucy Xiaolu Wang on the Medicines Patent Pool

Patent pools are agreements by multiple patent owners to license related patents for a fixed price. The net welfare effect of patent pools is theoretically ambiguous: they can reduce numerous transaction costs, but they also can impose anti-competitive costs (due to collusive price-fixing) and costs to future innovation (due to terms requiring pool members to license future technologies back to the pool). In prior posts, I've described work by Ryan Lampe and Petra Moser suggesting that the first U.S. patent pool—on sewing machine technologies—deterred innovation, and work by Rob Merges and Mike Mattioli suggesting that the savings from two high tech pools are enormous, and that those concerned with pools thus have a high burden to show that the costs outweigh these benefits. More recently, Mattioli has reviewed the complex empirical literature on patent pools.

Economics Ph.D. student Lucy Xiaolu Wang has a very interesting new paper to add to this literature, which I believe is the first empirical study of a biomedical patent pool: Global Drug Diffusion and Innovation with a Patent Pool: The Case of HIV Drug Cocktails. Wang examines the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP), a UN-backed nonprofit that bundles patents for HIV drugs and other medicines and licenses these patents for generic sales in developing countries, with rates that are typically no more than 5% of revenues. For many diseases, including HIV/AIDS, the standard treatment requires daily consumption of multiple compounds owned by different firms with numerous patents. Such situations can benefit from a patent pool for the diffusion of drugs and the creation of single-pill once-daily drug cocktails. She uses a difference-in-differences method to study the effect of the MPP on both static and dynamic welfare and finds enormous social benefits.

On static welfare, she concludes that the MPP increases generic drug purchases in developing countries. She uses "the arguably exogenous variation in the timing of when a drug is included in the pool"—which "is not determined by demand side factors such as HIV prevalence and death rates"—to conclude that adding a drug to the MPP for a given country "increases generic drug share by about seven percentage points in that country." She reports that the results are stronger in countries where drugs are patented (with patent thickets) and are robust to alternative specifications or definitions of counterfactual groups.

On dynamic welfare, Wang concludes that the MPP increases follow-on innovation. "Once a compound enters the pool, new clinical trials increase for drugs that include the compound and more firms participate in these trials," resulting in more new drug product approvals, particularly generic versions of single-pill drug cocktails. And this increase in R&D comes from both pool insiders and outsiders. She finds that outsiders primarily increase innovation for new and better uses of existing compounds, and insiders reallocate resources for pre-market trials and new compound development.

Under these estimations, the net social benefit is substantial. Wang uses a simple structural model and estimates that the MPP for licensing HIV drug patents increased consumer surplus by $700–1400 million and producer surplus by up to $181 million over the first seven years of its establishment, greatly exceeding the pool's $33 million total operating cost over the same period. Of course, estimating counterfactuals from natural experiments is always fraught with challenges. But as an initial effort to understand the net benefits and costs of the MPP, this seems like an important contribution that is worth the attention of legal scholars working in the patent pool area.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Anthony Levandowski: Is Being a Jerk a Crime?

Former Google employee Anthony Levandowski was recently indicted on federal criminal charges of trade secret theft. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the indictment was filed by the U.S. attorney’s office in San Jose and is based on the same facts as the civil trade secrets lawsuit that Waymo (formerly Google’s self-driving car project) settled with Uber last year. It is even assigned to the same judge. The gist of the indictment is that, at the time of his resignation from Waymo, and just before taking a new job at Uber, Levandowski downloaded approximately 14,000 files from a server hosted on Google's network. These files allegedly contained "critical engineering information about the hardware used on [Google's] self-driving vehicles …" Each of the 33 counts with which Levandowski is charged carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

This is a crucial time to remember that being disloyal to your employer, on its own, is not illegal. Employees like Levandowski have a clear duty of secrecy with respect to certain information they receive through their employment. But if none of this information constitutes trade secrets, there is no civil trade secret claim. In other words, for a civil trade secrets misappropriation claim, if there is no trade secret, there is no cause of action. 

For criminal cases like Levandowski's, the situation is more complicated. The federal criminal trade secret statute shares the same definition of "trade secret" as the federal civil trade secret statute. See 18 U.S.C. § 1839(3). However, unlike in civil trade secret cases, attempt and conspiracy can be actionable. 18 U.S.C. § 1832(a)(4)-(5). This means that even if the crime was not successful—because the information the employee took wasn't actually a trade secret—the employee can still go to jail. See U.S. v. Hsu, 155 F. 3d 189 (3rd Cir. 1998); U.S. v. Martin, 228 F.3d 1 (2000).  

The Levandoski indictment brings counts of criminal theft and attempted theft of trade secrets. (There is no conspiracy charge, which perhaps suggests the government will not argue Uber was knowingly involved.) But the inclusion of an "attempt" crime means the key question is not just whether Levandowski stole actual trade secrets. It is whether he attempted to do so while having the appropriate state of mindThe criminal provisions under which Levandowski is charged, codified in18 U.S.C. §§ 1832(a)(1), (2), (3) and (4), provide that "[w]hoever, with intent to convert a trade secret ... to the economic benefit of anyone other than the owner thereof, and intending or knowing that the offense will, injure any owner of that trade secret, knowingly—steals...obtains... possesses...[etcetera]" a trade secret, or "attempts to" do any of those things, "shall... be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both…" 

This means Levandowski can be found guilty of attempting to steal trade secrets that never actually existed. This seems odd. It contradicts fundamental ideas behind why we protect trade secrets. As law professor, Mark Lemley, observed in his oft-cited Stanford Law Review article, modern trade secret law is not a free-ranging license for judges to punish any acts they perceive as disloyal or immoral. It is a special form of property regime. Charles Tait Graves, a partner at Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, who teaches trade secrets at U.C. Hastings College of Law, echoes this conclusion. Treating trade secrets as an employer’s property, Graves writes, counterintuitively "offers better protection for employees who change jobs” than the alternatives, because it means courts must carefully "define the boundaries" of the right, and may require the court to rule in the end "that not all valuable information learned on the job is protectable.” See Charles Tait Graves, Trade Secrets As Property: Theory and Consequences, 15 J. Intell. Prop. L. 39 (2007). 

So where does that leave Levandowski? In Google/Waymo’s civil case against Uber, Uber got off with a settlement deal, presumably in part because Google recognized the difficulty in proving key pieces of its civil case. Despite initial appearances, Google’s civil action was not actually a slam dunk. It was not clear Uber actually received the specific files Levandowski took or that the information contained in those files constituted trade secrets, versus generally known information or Levandonwki's own "general knowledge, skill, and experience.” (I discuss this latter issue in my recent article, The General Knowledge, Skill, and Experience Paradox, forthcoming in the Boston College Law Review). 

But thanks to criminal remedies under 18 U.S.C. §1832, and that pesky "attempt" charge, Levandowsi is left holding the blame and facing millions in fines, and many decades in jail. 

Maybe being a jerk is illegal after all.