A newly announced change in Federal Trade Commission (FTC) policy could have dramatic implications for the ways manufacturers of everything from cell phones to cars draft warranties, design products, and distribute replacement parts. Specifically, the FTC has set its sights on repair restrictions.
On July 21, the Commission unanimously voted to approve a policy statement announcing increased antitrust and consumer protection enforcement against business practices that make it difficult for consumers to repair their own products, or use independent repair shops. Manufacturers should take note of this import change in enforcement policy, and promptly evaluate their exposure.
Notably, the FTC’s announcement comes on the heels of President Biden’s executive order “Promoting Competition in the American Economy,” which encouraged the FTC to address “anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items…” It also follows a recent report by the FTC to Congress addressing repair restrictions, and a July 2019 FTC workshop examining the issue.
One area of particular concern for the FTC is product warranties that require the use of specific service providers or parts. Section 102(c) of a 1975 federal law known as the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act (MMWA) prohibits companies from conditioning warranty coverage, expressly or impliedly, on a consumer’s use of an article or service identified by brand, trade, or corporate name, unless the company provides that article or service without charge or the company has received a waiver from the FTC.
Recent reports, including empirical analyses cited by the FTC in its report to Congress, suggest that violations of Section 102(c) are widespread. Indeed, one recent analysis by a prominent public interest group alleged that 45 out of 50 companies whose warranties the group examined appeared to violate the provision. Accordingly, Section 102(c) enforcement is likely to play a prominent role in the FTC’s crackdown.
It also appears that the FTC intends to use its broad authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” to challenge a wide range repair restrictions. In its report to Congress, the FTC highlighted the following practices in particular as “restricting independent repair or repair by consumers:”
“Physical restrictions” and “product designs that complicate or prevent repair”;
Purposely making parts, repair manuals, and diagnostic software and tools unavailable;
Designs that make independent repairs less safe, such as the use of glue to fasten lithium ion cells into mobile phones and other devices;
Steering consumers to preferred repair networks using telematics;
“Policies or statements that steer consumers to manufacturer repair networks”;
“Application of patent rights and enforcement of trademarks;
Disparagement of non-OEM parts and independent repair”;
“Software locks, Digital Rights Management and Technical Protection Measures”; and
“End User License Agreements.”
The diverse range of practices that the FTC has identified make this shift in enforcement an important issue for a wide range of companies. Still, there are clues to how the FTC may deploy its scarce resources in this area, at least initially.
First, its prior enforcement may provide an indication. In 2015, [...]
The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a final order of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which had found that agreements to refrain from bidding on keyword search terms for internet advertisements violated Section 5 of the FTC Act. The Court made clear that although trademark agreements are not necessarily immune from antitrust scrutiny, they are entitled to significant deference. 1-800 Contacts, Inc. v. Federal Trade Commission, Case No. 18-3848 (2d Cir. June 11, 2021) (Per Curium). The Second Circuit held that the FTC applied an incorrect analytical framework and incorrectly concluded that the agreements were an unfair method of competition under the FTC Act.
1-800 Contacts and its competitors advertise online through search advertising. They bid on search engine keywords, which help display their websites in response to consumer searches. They also bid on negative keywords, which prevent their ads from being displayed when consumers search for specified terms.
Between 2004 and 2013, 1-800 Contacts entered into a series of settlement agreements to resolve trademark disputes with competitors, as well as one commercial agreement with a competitor, all of which included terms prohibiting the parties from using each other’s trademarks, URLs and similar terms as search advertising keywords. The agreements also required the parties to use negative keywords so that a search including one party’s trademarks would not trigger a display of the other party’s ads. 1-800 Contacts enforced these agreements when it believed them to be breached.
The FTC challenged the agreements, alleging that they “unreasonably restrain truthful, non-misleading advertising as well as price competition in search advertising auctions,” violating Section 5 of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45. An administrative law judge (ALJ) subsequently found the agreements to violate Section 5. 1-800 Contacts appealed to the full Commission, which affirmed the ALJ’s decision. 1-800 Contacts appealed.
The Second Circuit vacated the FTC’s decision but noted that the FTC was correct to reject 1-800 Contacts’ argument that trademark settlement agreements are necessarily immune from antitrust scrutiny. Citing the Supreme Court decision in Actavis, the Second Circuit held, “the mere fact that an agreement implicates intellectual property rights does not immunize an agreement from antitrust attack.”
The Second Circuit disagreed with the FTC’s specific antitrust analysis, however. The Court held that the FTC erred by applying an “inherently suspect” analysis—also known as a “quick-look” analysis—rather than the rule of reason. The Court focused on the fact that “the restraints at issue here could plausibly be thought to have a net procompetitive effect because they are derived from trademark settlement agreements,” and the fact that the FTC acknowledged as much by finding that the company’s justifications were “cognizable and, at least, facially plausible.” The Second Circuit also noted that courts have limited experience with these types of agreements. The Court concluded that “[w]hen, as here, not only are there cognizable procompetitive justifications but also the type of restraint has not been widely condemned in our judicial experience . . . . [w]e are bound . . [...]