Patent holdup can arise when circumstances enable a patent owner to extract a larger royalty ex post than it could have obtained in an arms length transaction ex ante. While the concept of patent holdup is familiar to scholars and practitioners—particularly in the context of standard-essential patent (SEP) disputes—the economic details are frequently misunderstood. For example, the popular assumption that switching costs (those required to switch from the infringing technology to an alternative) necessarily contribute to holdup is false in general, and will tend to overstate the potential for extracting excessive royalties. On the other hand, some commentaries mistakenly presume that large fixed costs are an essential ingredient of patent holdup, which understates the scope of the problem.
In this Article, we clarify and distinguish the most basic economic factors that contribute to patent holdup. This casts light on various points of confusion arising in many commentaries on the subject. Path dependence—which can act to inflate the value of a technology simply because it was adopted first—is a useful concept for understanding the problem. In particular, patent holdup can be viewed as opportunistic exploitation of path dependence effects serving to inflate the value of a patented technology (relative to the alternatives) after it is adopted. This clarifies that factors contributing to holdup are not static, but rather consist in changes in economic circumstances over time. By breaking down the problem into its most basic parts, our analysis provides a useful blueprint for applying patent holdup theory in complex cases.