Every generation tackles old problems anew.  Abject homelessness, “radicalized” socialists, tyrant capitalists, gilded-age life-styles and monopolistic practices may seem like current news, but they were omnipresent in the first Gilded Age in California, circa the 1890s.

A “naturalistic” writer, Frank Norris, surveyed this landscape through his novel The Octopus: A Story of California (1901).  Its

The term pioneer patent [1] is often misapplied with hyperbole and exaggeration.  When it comes to the shrimp peeling machine invented by Fernand and James Lapeyre, however, that blockbuster label is spot-on. [2]  Their automated way of processing shrimp rocked the seafood processing industry in the 1950s by driving manual labor costs virtually out of existence.  In today’s vernacular, it was a real game-changer.

Patents (and intellectual property rights in general) do not necessarily confer natural monopoly rights as economists would understand the concept.  This is because excluding “others from using a particular name, word, image, product or process does not imply any substantial market power when substitutes are plentiful.” [3] When a groundbreaking patent is issued, however, the governmental grant can take on monopolistic tendencies—paradoxically even if unused and seemingly unexploited.

A monopoly is commonly defined as the “exclusive control by one group of the means of producing or selling a commodity or service.”[4]  A pioneer patent—and even more importantly nowadays, a conglomeration of related patents owned by a single entity—can sometimes create new product and service markets and legal barriers to entry capable of commanding what economists call “monopoly rents.”  As rational actors, it is also an economics truism that “monopolists invariably act like monopolists” as they strive to maximize profits.

Even though the United States Patent and Trademark Office is empowered to issue broad exclusionary rights to worthy inventors, another broad federal statute—the Sherman Act—exists to prevent abuses to the competitive process.  Section Two of the Sherman Act provides that every “person who shall monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, shall be deemed guilty of a felony ….”  15 U.S.C. § 2.  The right to exclude others from co-opting inventions (in the absence of a license from the patent owner) is accurately described as a “time-limited government” conveyance of “potential monopoly power, which can be put to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ uses from a societal standpoint.”[5]

Where is the line drawn between lawfully exploiting patent rights and running afoul of antitrust law prohibitions regarding monopolization?  The answer is murky and perhaps unsatisfying to those seeking bright line licensing and competition rules.  The boundary line often only becomes clear in retrospect.  The demarcation between a patent owner lawfully exploiting exclusionary rights vs. an illegal monopolist abusing those same rights is highly fact-dependent.

The Lapeyre family’s very creative leasing scheme for its patented shrimp peeling machines offers a vital case in point.  With the invention of a single processing machine, the company irrevocably altered the cost dynamics of an entire shrimp processing industry.  Licensing disputes—collectively known as the “shrimp peeler” cases[6]—arose soon after the commercialization of the Lapeyre’s invention and were finally resolved in the mid-1960s.  These case holdings help demonstrate how the Lapeyre’s crossed the line between “good” and “bad” exercises of a patent’s potential market power.

The shrimp peeler cases predate wholesale policy changes in antitrust analysis that emerged out of the “Chicago School” of economic theory—especially the demand for the more rigorous determinations of market power championed by Judge Richard Posner.  However, despite paradigmatic changes in antitrust jurisprudence, the outcome of the shrimp peeler cases would likely be no different today. 
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