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Kolasky on the Apple e-books case: Another reminder that “easy labels do not always supply ready answers”

Popular Media By William Kolasky In my view, the Second Circuit’s decision in Apple e-Books, if not reversed by the Supreme Court, threatens to undo a half century of progress in . . .

By William Kolasky

In my view, the Second Circuit’s decision in Apple e-Books, if not reversed by the Supreme Court, threatens to undo a half century of progress in reforming antitrust doctrine. In decision after decision, from White Motors through Leegin and Actavis, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held—in cases involving both horizontal and vertical restraints—that the only test for whether an agreement can be found per se unlawful under Section 1 is whether it is “a naked [restraint] of trade with no purpose except stifling competition,” or whether it is instead “ancillary to the legitimate and competitive purposes” of a business association. DagherThe cases in which the Court has consistently applied this test read like a litany of antitrust decisions we all now study in law school: White Motors, TopcoGTE SylvaniaProfessional EngineersBMIMaricopaNCAABusiness ElectronicsARCOCalifornia Dental, Dagher, Leegin, American Needleand, most recently, Actavis. Significantly, more than two-thirds of these cases involved horizontal, not vertical restraints.

In these decisions, the Court has also repeatedly warned that this test cannot be applied by simply asking whether the defendants “have literally ‘fixed’ a ‘price,” or otherwise agreed not to compete. Warning that “[l]iteralness is overly simplistic and often overbroad,” the Court insisted in BMI that courts instead focus on “the effect and, because it tends to show effect…, on the purpose of the practice” to determine whether “the practice facially appears to be one that would always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output… or instead one designed to ‘increase economic efficiency and render markets more, rather than less, competitive.”

In applying this test the Court has also repeatedly emphasized that a court should classify an alleged restraint—whether horizontal or vertical—as per se unlawful “only after considerable experience” with the particular restraint at issue. In addition, the Court has repeatedly emphasized that all that is necessary for a restraint to escape per se illegality is that there be a “plausible” procompetitive purpose behind it. See, e.g., Cal Dental; Business Electronics; Northwest Wholesale Stationers.

By focusing so much attention in their cert. papers on whether the agreements between Apple and the publishers should be characterized as “vertical” or “horizontal,” both Apple and the DOJ seem to have lost sight of the fundamental teachings of this long line of Supreme Court decisions—namely, that even if an agreement is horizontal, it can be found to be per se unlawful only if it is a naked agreement that, on its face, serves no purpose other than to restrict competition and restrain output. This is particularly important where, as in this case, the alleged agreements have both horizontal and vertical elements. In such cases, the right question is not whether the agreements can be labeled a “hub-and-spoke conspiracy,” but instead what the nature and purpose of those agreements were.

In this case, the nature of the arrangement between Apple and the publishers by which they all appointed Apple as their common sales agent is not fundamentally different from the an agreement among a group of competitors to appoint a joint sales agent. While such an arrangement can, in some circumstances, be used to facilitate cartel behavior, it can also serve legitimate pro-competitive purposes by enabling those competitors to market their goods or services more efficiently. The courts and antitrust enforcement agencies have, therefore, recognized—ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in Appalachian Coals—that these joint sales arrangements must generally be evaluated under the rule of reason and cannot in all instances be condemned as per se unlawful. See, e.g., FTC/DOJ, Competitor Collaboration Guidelines(For those of you who remember the criticisms that used to be directed at that decision by your antitrust professor in law school, I urge you to read Sheldon Kimmel’s excellent revisionist article, How and Why the Per Se Rule Against Price Fixing Went Wrong, showing that the Court’s holding was perfectly consistent with its more recent rulings in BMI and its progeny.

Viewing this as an agreement among the publishers to appoint Apple as their common sales agent might have helped the lower courts to have focused on what should have been the key issues in the case. The first is whether the agency arrangement was a “naked” agreement to “restrict competition and decrease output,” or could “plausibly” have been intended to serve other legitimate pro-competitive business purposes. The second is whether, if so, the restraints that were part of this arrangement—such as price caps and most-favored nation clauses—were ancillary to those legitimate purposes.

Based on the record as I read it, it appears to me that the answers to these two questions are obvious, and that they compel the conclusion that this common sales agent arrangement could not be classified as per se unlawful, but would need to be evaluated under a full-blown rule of reason analysis. Let me address each issue in turn.

Was the common sales agent arrangement between Apple and the five publishers a naked agreement to fix prices and restrict output?

Neither the lower courts nor the parties in their cert papers address this key issue in any detail, choosing instead to spend page after page debating whether the agreement between Apple and the publishers was horizontal or vertical. Fortunately, the amicus briefs that were filed in support of Apple’s cert. petition by ICLE and by a group of antitrust economists do address the issue at considerable length.

Those briefs make a convincing argument that the common sale agent arrangements between the publishers and Apple were designed to serve at least two pro-competitive purposes. The first was to introduce greater competition into the downstream market for the distribution of e-books by ending Amazon’s below-cost pricing of e-books at the retail level. The second was to give the publishers greater control over the downstream pricing of their e-books in order to prevent below-cost pricing of e-books from cannibalizing the sales of their print books.

The common sale agent arrangement served to introduce more competition into the downstream market for the distribution of e-books

This one is easy. No one disputes that before Apple entered, Amazon dominated the downstream market for e-books with a 90% market share, giving it a virtual monopoly. Hopefully, few, if any, would dispute that Amazon’s loss-leader strategy of selling e-books at well below cost served to entrench its near monopoly position in that market. It is easy to understand why publishers of e-books would not want to allow Amazon’s monopoly to continue, leaving them with only a sole distributor for their products.

The record below makes it clear that Apple did not believe it could profitably enter the e-book market so long as Amazon continued to maintain its first-mover advantage by selling e-books below cost. Apple and the publishers therefore had a common interest in moving from the existing wholesale model of e-book distribution to a new agency model under which the publishers, not Amazon, would control the retail pricing of e-books and could set those prices at a level that would enable other competitors, such as Apple, to enter. That seems pro-competitive to me.

The record also makes it clear that this objective could not be accomplished through a simple vertical agency agreement between Apple and one or two individual publishers. In order to enter successfully, Apple needed a critical mass of titles, which it could have only by securing the agreement of most of the leading publishers to appoint it as their common sale agent. Apple, therefore, had a legitimate pro-competitive business reason to facilitate—or, as the Second Circuit charged, “orchestrate” —agreements among the publishers to switch to an agency model and to appoint Apple as their common non-exclusive agent for the sale of their e-books.

The common sales agent arrangement gave the publishers control over the retail prices of e-books, protecting them from harms to their businesses that could otherwise be caused by below-cost pricing by a single dominant retailer.

The Second Circuit and DOJ both make much of the fact that the publishers wanted to control the retail prices of e-books in order to raise those prices above the level set by Amazon’s loss-leader pricing strategy. They both seem to believe that this alone is enough to characterize their conduct as a “naked price fixing scheme.” But it is not. As the Supreme Court held in Leegin, resale price maintenance can be pro-competitive even if it leads to higher prices if it is designed promote competition by creating a more efficient and competitive distribution system.

As Areeda and Hovenkamp teach in their treatise, Fundamentals of Antitrust Law, the same principle applies to agreements among a group of horizontal competitors to appoint a single sales agent. Those competitors will frequently “have to agree with each other that they will not accept less than a certain minimum price, or sometimes may even have to agree on the entire price schedule,” and these prices may sometimes be higher than the prices at which they were previously selling the products individually. See Areeda & Hovenkamp (2015 Supp.)at 19:31-32. But even if these agreements result in an increase in price, they argue that it should not be found illegal if the effect on output is positive. Their argument is supported by the language in BMI, in which the Court focused on the effect of a restraint on output, not price, in describing what was necessary to classify an alleged restraint as a per se illegal naked price-fixing agreement.

Here, although the district court found that prices went up and output went down in the short run after the publishers switched from their wholesale model to an agency model, these immediate, short-term effects do not necessarily show that the switch to the new agency model might not, over the long-term, have resulted in an increase in output. DOJ concedes that since Apple’s entry, e-book sales have grown exponentially, but speculates that this growth might have occurred even if Amazon had continued to maintain its monopoly position in the retail sale of e-books. As someone who reads e-books on my iPad, I doubt that, but this is the type of issue that can only be resolved through a full rule-of-reason analysis, not through the application of a conclusive presumption of illegality under the per se doctrine.

Here, as the amicus briefs argue, there are several ways Amazon’s loss-leader pricing strategy could have depressed the output of both e-book and print books long-term. First, of course, once its monopoly was fully entrenched, Amazon could have sought to recoup its losses by raising its e-book prices above a competitive level. Second, if instead Amazon continued to cannibalize print sales through below-cost e-book pricing, publishers might have been forced to reduce the royalties they pay authors, giving those authors less reason to continue writing, thus reducing the output of all books. Again, these are the types of issues that require a full rule of reason analysis, not summary condemnation under the per se doctrine.

Were the price caps and most-favored nation clauses ancillary restraints that may have been reasonably necessary to the legitimate pro-competitive purposes of the common sales agent arrangement?

The ancillary nature of the terms that were included in Apple’s agency agreements with the publishers, and which the publishers may have agreed among themselves to accept, is equally easy to show.

The price caps on which Apple insisted were obviously designed to protect it from opportunistic behavior by the publishers in charging higher prices for their e-books than what Apple felt the market would accept, thereby preventing it from selling a sufficient volume of e-books to make its entry successful. Such opportunistic behavior by the publishers could also have made it harder to convince consumers to buy Apple’s new iPad, the success of which was critical to its future.

The most favored nation clauses on which Apple insisted, and which the publishers may also have agreed among themselves to accept, were likewise arguably necessary to protect Apple from the risk of having to compete against an established competitor offering lower prices than it could, thereby impeding its successful entry and damaging its goodwill with consumers.

In both cases, these are classic and legitimate reasons for ancillary restraints. Whether or not these particular restraints were reasonably necessary to Apple’s successful entry is a question that could only be decided on the basis of a full rule of reason analysis. All that is needed to avoid per se condemnation is that there be a plausible argument that they were, and that, again, should be something that no one could dispute.

* * *

Given the way the case was litigated, I recognize that it may be difficult to introduce at the Supreme Court level a whole new way of looking at the facts of the case. But if the Court does grant cert., I would hope that Apple and the amici supporting it would try to refocus the Court’s attention away from a sterile argument over whether the restraints in question were vertical or horizontal, and to focus it instead on whether they were a “naked” attempt to fix prices and restrict output or were instead ancillary to a pro-competitive business relationship.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Manne on the Apple e-books case: The Second Circuit’s decision has no support in the law and/or economics

Popular Media As ICLE argued in its amicus brief, the Second Circuit’s ruling in United States v. Apple Inc. is in direct conflict with the Supreme Court’s 2007 Leegin decision, and creates . . .

As ICLE argued in its amicus brief, the Second Circuit’s ruling in United States v. Apple Inc. is in direct conflict with the Supreme Court’s 2007 Leegin decision, and creates a circuit split with the Third Circuit based on that court’s Toledo Mack ruling. Moreover, the negative consequences of the court’s ruling will be particularly acute for modern, high-technology sectors of the economy, where entrepreneurs planning to deploy new business models will now face exactly the sort of artificial deterrents that the Court condemned in Trinko:

Mistaken inferences and the resulting false condemnations are especially costly, because they chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Absent review by the Supreme Court to correct the Second Circuit’s error, the result will be less-vigorous competition and a reduction in consumer welfare. The Court should grant certiorari.

The Second Circuit committed a number of important errors in its ruling.

First, as the Supreme Court held in Leegin, condemnation under the per se rule is appropriate

only for conduct that would always or almost always tend to restrict competition… [and] only after courts have had considerable experience with the type of restraint at issue.

Neither is true in this case. The use of MFNs in Apple’s contracts with the publishers and its adoption of the so-called “agency model” for e-book pricing have never been reviewed by the courts in a setting like this one, let alone found to “always or almost always tend to restrict competition.” There is no support in the case law or economic literature for the proposition that agency models or MFNs used to facilitate entry by new competitors in platform markets like this one are anticompetitive.

Second, the court of appeals emphasized that in some cases e-book prices increased after Apple’s entry, and it viewed that fact as strong support for application of the per se rule. But the Court in Leegin made clear that the per se rule is inappropriate where, as here, “prices can be increased in the course of promoting procompetitive effects.”

What the Second Circuit missed is that competition occurs on many planes other than price; higher prices do not necessarily suggest decreased competition or anticompetitive effects. As Josh Wright points out:

[T]the multi-dimensional nature of competition implies that antitrust analysis seeking to maximize consumer or total welfare must inevitably calculate welfare tradeoffs when innovation and price effects run in opposite directions.

Higher prices may accompany welfare-enhancing “competition on the merits,” resulting in greater investment in product quality, reputation, innovation, or distribution mechanisms.

While the court acknowledged that “[n]o court can presume to know the proper price of an ebook,” its analysis nevertheless rested on the presumption that Amazon’s prices before Apple’s entry were competitive. The record, however, offered no support for that presumption, and thus no support for the inference that post-entry price increases were anticompetitive.

In fact, as Alan Meese has pointed out, a restraint might increase prices precisely because it overcomes a market failure:

[P]roof that a restraint alters price or output when compared to the status quo ante is at least equally consistent with an alternative explanation, namely, that the agreement under scrutiny corrects a market failure and does not involve the exercise or creation of market power. Because such failures can result in prices that are below the optimum, or output that is above it, contracts that correct or attenuate market failure will often increase prices or reduce output when compared to the status quo ante. As a result, proof that such a restraint alters price or other terms of trade is at least equally consistent with a procompetitive explanation, and thus cannot give rise to a prima facie case under settled antitrust doctrine.

Before Apple’s entry, Amazon controlled 90% of the e-books market, and the publishers had for years been unable to muster sufficient bargaining power to renegotiate the terms of their contracts with Amazon. At the same time, Amazon’s pricing strategies as a nascent platform developer in a burgeoning market (that it was, in practical effect, trying to create) likely did not always produce prices that would be optimal under evolving market conditions as the market matured. The fact that prices may have increased following the alleged anticompetitive conduct cannot support an inference that the conduct was anticompetitive.

Third, the Second Circuit also made a mistake in dismissing Apple’s defenses. The court asserted that

this defense — that higher prices enable more competitors to enter a market — is no justification for a horizontal price?fixing conspiracy.

But the court is incorrect. As Bill Kolasky points out in his post, it is well-accepted that otherwise-illegal agreements that are ancillary to a procompetitive transaction should be evaluated under the rule of reason.

It was not that Apple couldn’t enter unless Amazon’s prices (and its own) were increased. Rather, the contention made by Apple was that it could not enter unless it was able to attract a critical mass of publishers to its platform – a task which required some sharing of information among the publishers – and unless it was able to ensure that Amazon would not artificially lower its prices to such an extent that it would prevent Apple from attracting a critical mass of readers to its platform. The MFN and the agency model were thus ancillary restraints that facilitated the transactions between Apple and the publishers and between Apple and iPad purchasers. In this regard they are appropriately judged under the rule of reason and, under the rule of reason, offer a valid procompetitive justification for the restraints.

And it was the fact of Apple’s entry, not the use of vertical restraints in its contracts, that enabled the publishers to wield the bargaining power sufficient to move Amazon to the agency model. The court itself noted that the introduction of the iPad and iBookstore “gave publishers more leverage to negotiate for alternative sales models or different pricing.” And as Ben Klein noted at trial,

Apple’s entry probably gave the publishers an increased ability to threaten [Amazon sufficiently that it accepted the agency model]…. The MFN [made] a trivial change in the publishers’ incentives…. The big change that occurs is the change on the other side of the bargaining situation after Apple comes in where Amazon now cannot just tell them no.

Fourth, the purpose of applying the per se rule is to root out activities that always or almost always harm competition. Although it’s possible that a horizontal agreement that facilitates entry and increases competition could be subject to the per se rule, in this case its application was inappropriate. The novelty of Apple’s arrangement with the publishers, coupled with the weakness of proof of any sort of actual price fixing fails to meet even a minimal threshold that would require application of the per se rule.

Not all horizontal arrangements are per se illegal. If an arrangement is relatively novel, facilitates entry, and is patently different from naked price fixing, it should be reviewed under the rule of reason. See BMI. All of those conditions are met here.

The conduct of the publishers – distinct from their agreements with Apple – to find some manner of changing their contracts with Amazon is not itself price fixing, either. The prices themselves would be set only subsequent to whatever new contracts were adopted. At worst, the conduct of the publishers in working toward new contracts with Amazon can be characterized as a facilitating practice.

But even then, the precedent of the Court counsels against applying the per se rule to facilitating practices such as the mere dissemination of price information or, as in this case, information regarding the parties’ preferred, bilateral, contractual relationships. As the Second Circuit itself once held, following the Supreme Court,  

[the] exchange of information is not illegal per se, but can be found unlawful under a rule of reason analysis.

In other words, even the behavior of the publishers should be analyzed under a rule of reason – and Apple’s conduct in facilitating that behavior cannot be imbued with complicity in a price-fixing scheme that may not have existed at all.

Fifth, in order for conduct to “eliminate price competition,” there must be price competition to begin with. But as the district court itself noted, the publishers do not compete on price. This point is oft-overlooked in discussions of the case. It is perhaps possible to say that the contract terms at issue and the publishers’ pressure on Amazon affected price competition between Apple and Amazon – but even then it cannot be said to have reduced competition, because, absent Apple’s entry, there was no competition at all between Apple and Amazon.

It’s true that, if all Apple’s entry did was to transfer identical e-book sales from Amazon to Apple, at higher prices and therefore lower output, it might be difficult to argue that Apple’s entry was procompetitive. But the myopic focus on e-book titles without consideration of product differentiation is mistaken, as well.

The relevant competition here is between Apple and Amazon at the platform level. As explained above, it is misleading to look solely at prices in evaluating the market’s competitiveness. Provided that switching costs are low enough and information about the platforms is available to consumers, consumer welfare may have been enhanced by competition between the platforms on a range of non-price dimensions, including, for example: the Apple iBookstore’s distinctive design, Apple’s proprietary file format, features on Apple’s iPad that were unavailable on Kindle Readers, Apple’s use of a range of marketing incentives unavailable to Amazon, and Apple’s algorithmic matching between its data and consumers’ e-book purchases.

While it’s difficult to disentangle Apple’s entry from other determinants of consumers’ demand for e-books, and even harder to establish with certainty the “but-for” world, it is nonetheless telling that the e-book market has expanded significantly since Apple’s entry, and that purchases of both iPads and Kindles have increased, as well.

There is, in other words, no clear evidence that consumers viewed the two products as perfect substitutes, and thus there is no evidence that Apple’s entry merely caused a non-welfare-enhancing substitution from Amazon to Apple. At minimum, there is no basis for treating the contract terms that facilitated Apple’s entry under a per se standard.

***

The point, in sum, is that there is in fact substantial evidence that Apple’ entry was pro-competitive, that there was no price-fixing scheme of which Apple was a part, and absolutely no evidence that the vertical restraints at issue in the case were the sort that should presumptively give rise to liability. Not only was application of the per se rule inappropriate, but, to answer Richard Epstein, there is strong evidence that Apple should win under a rule of reason analysis, as well.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Epstein on the Apple e-books case: The hidden traps in the Apple ebook case

Popular Media On balance the Second Circuit was right to apply the antitrust laws to Apple. Right now the Supreme Court has before it a petition for . . .

On balance the Second Circuit was right to apply the antitrust laws to Apple.

Right now the Supreme Court has before it a petition for Certiorari, brought by Apple, Inc., which asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Second Circuit. That decision found per se illegality under the Sherman Act, for Apple’s efforts to promote cooperation among a group of six major publishers, who desperately sought to break Amazon’s dominant position in the ebook market. At that time, Amazon employed a wholesale model for ebooks under which it bought them for a fixed price, but could sell them for whatever price it wanted, including sales at below cost of popular books treated as loss leaders. These sales particularly frustrated publishers because of the extra pressure they placed on the sale of hard cover and paper back books. That problem disappeared under the agency relationship model that Apple pioneered. Now the publishers would set the prices for the sale of their own volumes, and then pay Apple a fixed commission for its services in selling the ebooks.

This agency model gives the publishers a price freedom, but it would fall apart at the seams if Amazon could continue to sell ebooks under the wholesale model at prices below those that were set by publishers for ebook sales by Apple. To deal with this complication, Apple insisted that all publishers that sold to it through the agency model require Amazon to purchase the ebooks on the same terms. Apple also insisted that it receive a most-favored-nation clause so that it would not find itself undercut either by Amazon or by a new entrant that also used the agency model.

There is little question that Apple would be in fine shape if it had proposed this model to each of the publishers separately, for then its action would be a form of ordinary competition of the sort permitted to every new entrant. Competition often takes place in terms of price, where the terms of the contracts are standard between competitors. That common state of affairs makes it easier for customers to compare prices with each other, and—sigh—for competitors to collude with each other. But without some evidence of collusion, the price parallelism should be regarded as per se legal, as it is routinely today. The decision to adopt a new form of pricing makes cross-product comparisons more difficult, but, by the same token, it offers a wider range of choice to customers. Again there is nothing in the antitrust laws that does, or should, prevent nonprice competition, including a radical shift in business model.

As it happened, once Apple imposed its model, the older wholesale model gave way, because it could not survive anywhere once the agency model was introduced. In the short run, this tectonic market shift has resulted in an increase in the price of ebooks and a corresponding decline in revenue, which is just what one would expect when prices are raised. It is therefore difficult to defend the case on the ground that it produces, in either the long or the short run, lower prices that benefit consumers. But it is difficult in the abstract to find that higher prices themselves are the hallmark of an antitrust violation.

At root the main considerations should be structural. What makes the ebooks case so hard is that it arises at the cross-currents of two different antitrust approaches. The general view is that horizontal arrangements are per se illegal, which means that it is necessary to show some very specific justifications to defeat a charge under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. No such arguments — like the need to share information in order to operate in a network industry — present themselves here. Yet by the same token, the general view on vertical arrangements is that they offer efficiencies by reducing the bottlenecks that could be created if players at different levels of the distribution system seek to hold out for a larger share of the gain, thereby creating a serious double marginalization problem. In these cases, the modern view is that vertical arrangements are in general governed by rule of reason considerations. The question now is what happens where there is an inevitable confluence of the vertical and horizontal arrangements.

In preparing for this short column, I read the petition for certiorari by Apple, and the two separate briefs prepared in support of Apple by a set of law professors and economists respectively. Both urge that this case be evaluated under a rule of reason, not the per se rule that applies to horizontal price-fixing. Both these briefs are excellently done. But I confess that my current view is that they miss the central difficulty in this case. Any argument for a rule of reason has to be able to identify in advance the gains and losses that justify some kind of balancing act. That standard can be met in merger cases, where under the standard Williamson model one is asked to compare the social gains from lower costs with the social losses from increased competition. These are not decisions that can be made well within the judicial context, so a separate administrative procedure is set up under the premerger notification program established under the 1976 Hart-Scott-Rodino Act. The administrative setting makes it possible to collect the needed information, and to decide whether to allow the merger to go through, and if so, subject to what conditions on matters such as partial divestiture to avoid excessive concentration in relevant submarkets. The task is always messy, but the rule-of-thumb that five-to-four is generally fine and three-to-two is not, shows that it is possible to hone in on an answer in most cases, but not all.

But what is troublesome in Apple is that, though the briefs are very persuasive in arguing that mixed vertical and horizontal arrangements might fit better into a rule of reason framework, they do not indicate what metric the parties should use to determine, once the case is remanded, how the rule of reason plays out. That is to say, there is no clear theory of what should be traded off against what. To put the point another way, none of these briefs argues that the transaction in question should be regarded as per se legal, so my fear is this: all the relevant information is already made available in the case, so that, on remand, the only task left to be done is to decide whether Apple should be protected because its own conduct disrupts a near-monopoly position that is held by Amazon. But that argument is at least a little dicey given that no one could argue that Amazon has obtained its dominant position by any unlawful means, which undercuts (but does not destroy) the argument that cutting Amazon down to size is necessarily a good thing. It might not be if the willingness to allow a collusive collateral attack orchestrated by Apple would reduce ex ante the gains from innovation that Amazon surely created when it pioneered its own wholesale ebook model. Facilitation is often regarded as criminal and tortious conduct in other areas. So at the moment, and subject to revision, my view is that the Second Circuit got it right. The vertical assist to the horizontal arrangement increased the odds of the horizontal deal that was illegal, and probably shares in that taint.

In making this judgment I think of the decision in Fashion Originators’ Guild of America, Inc. v. FTC (FOGA) which did address the question of whether the defendants could resist a cease and desist order by the FTC, which had attacked as per se illegal a decision of the manufacturers whose comparative advantage was to act as sellers of original and distinctive designs that at the time received neither patent nor copyright protection. The defendants entered into a limited form of collusion whereby they agreed not to sell to any retailer who carried a knock-off of their creations. They did not extend their cooperative activity into any other area. In essence, they sought only to protect what they regarded as their intellectual property. Justice Black held that the case did not fall outside the per se Section 1 prohibition even though it could easily have been argued that these decisions were undertaken to protect the labor that these individuals had placed in their creations. In addition, the opinion concluded with this passage:

even if copying were an acknowledged tort under the law of every state, that situation would not justify petitioners in combining together to regulate and restrain interstate commerce in violation of federal law. And for these same reasons, the principles declared in International News Service v. Associated Press, 248 U.S. 215, [1918], cannot serve to legalize petitioners’ unlawful combination.

I think that the first sentence here is wrong if self-help is cheaper and more reliable in dealing with the threat. But Justice Black flatly rejected the INS decision, which in my view represents a highly sophisticated effort to develop a tort of unfair competition between direct competitors. It reaches the correct result by defining the protected right narrowly—publication for one news cycle only. That move guards against misappropriation when it matters most, but by design prevents the creation of any long-term monopoly on anything like the copyright model. The limited and proportionate response in FOGA, however, did not cut any ice.

In addition, the defendants in FOGA have a respectable case on the merits that some protection of these design elements should be provided under either the patent or copyright laws, precisely because the appropriation is so difficult to guard against by any other means. Probably, the statutory length of such protection should not be as long as that offered by standard patents and copyrights, but that matter could be settled by statute. Accordingly, if antitrust law turns a blind eye to these justifications, is the nonspecific concern raised, but not spelled out, by Apple any stronger?

Finally, what should be the bottom line? It is worth noting that in FOGA the government was seeking only an injunction against the conduct, without asking for any damages. In Apple, the co-plaintiff states are seeking damage awards. Perhaps the simplest solution is to allow the injunction and to deny the damages, in part because of the clear complexity of the underlying legal issues. In this case, King Solomon might be wise to split the baby.

Filed under: anticompetitive market distortions, antitrust, e-books, e-books symposium, error costs, law and economics, markets, MFNs, monopolization, technology, vertical restraints Tagged: agency model, Amazon, antitrust, Apple, doj, e-books, entry, iBookstore, Leegin, major publishers, MFN, most favored nations clause, per se, price-fixing, publishing industry, Rule of reason, Supreme Court, vertical restraints

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Hylton on the Apple e-books case: The central importance of the Court’s under-appreciated Business Electronics case

TOTM For a few months I have thought that the Apple eBooks case would find an easy fit within the Supreme Court’s antitrust decisions. The case . . .

For a few months I have thought that the Apple eBooks case would find an easy fit within the Supreme Court’s antitrust decisions. The case that seems closest to me is Business Electronics v. Sharp Electronics, an unfortunately under-appreciated piece of antitrust precedent. One sign of its under-appreciation is its absence in some recent editions of antitrust casebooks.

Read the full piece here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Blog symposium on the Apple e-books antitrust case: Implications for antitrust law and for the economy

TOTM The appellate court’s 2015 decision affirming the district court’s finding of per se liability in United States v. Apple provoked controversy over the legal and . . .

The appellate court’s 2015 decision affirming the district court’s finding of per se liability in United States v. Apple provoked controversy over the legal and economic merits of the case, its significance for antitrust jurisprudence, and its implications for entrepreneurs, startups, and other economic actors throughout the economy. Apple has filed a cert petition with the Supreme Court, which will decide on February 19th whether to hear the case.

Read the full piece here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

The 2nd Circuit’s Apple e-books decision: Debating the merits and the meaning

Popular Media On Thursday I will be participating in an ABA panel discussion on the Apple e-books case, along with Mark Ryan (former DOJ attorney) and Fiona . . .

On Thursday I will be participating in an ABA panel discussion on the Apple e-books case, along with Mark Ryan (former DOJ attorney) and Fiona Scott-Morton (former DOJ economist), both of whom were key members of the DOJ team that brought the case. Details are below. Judging from the prep call, it should be a spirited discussion!

Readers looking for background on the case (as well as my own views — decidedly in opposition to those of the DOJ) can find my previous commentary on the case and some of the issues involved here:

Other TOTM authors have also weighed in. See, e.g.:

DETAILS:

ABA Section of Antitrust Law

Federal Civil abaantitrustEnforcement Committee, Joint Conduct, Unilateral Conduct, and Media & Tech Committees Present:

“The 2d Cir.’s Apple E-Books decision: Debating the merits and the meaning”

July 16, 2015
12:00 noon to 1:30 pm Eastern / 9:00 am to 10:30 am Pacific

On June 30, the Second Circuit affirmed DOJ’s trial victory over Apple in the Ebooks Case. The three-judge panel fractured in an interesting way: two judges affirmed the finding that Apple’s role in a “hub and spokes” conspiracy was unlawful per se; one judge also would have found a rule-of-reason violation; and the dissent — stating Apple had a “vertical” position and was challenging the leading seller’s “monopoly” — would have found no liability at all. What is the reasoning and precedent of the decision? Is “marketplace vigilantism” (the concurring judge’s phrase) ever justified? Our panel — which includes the former DOJ head of litigation involved in the case — will debate the issues.

Moderator

  • Ken Ewing, Steptoe & Johnson LLP

Panelists

  • Geoff Manne, International Center for Law & Economics
  • Fiona Scott Morton, Yale School of Management
  • Mark Ryan, Mayer Brown LLP

Register HERE

Filed under: administrative, antitrust, cartels, contracts, doj, e-books, economics, Efficiencies, error costs, law and economics, litigation, market definition, MFNs, monopolization, resale price maintenance, technology, vertical restraints Tagged: agency model, Amazon, antitrust, Apple, doj, e-books, iBookstore, major publishers, MFN, most favored nations clause, per se, price-fixing, publishing industry, Rule of reason, vertical restraints

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Why I think the Apple e-books antitrust decision will (or at least should) be overturned

Popular Media On July 10 a federal judge ruled that Apple violated antitrust law by conspiring to raise prices of e-books when it negotiated deals with five . . .

On July 10 a federal judge ruled that Apple violated antitrust law by conspiring to raise prices of e-books when it negotiated deals with five major publishers. I’ve written on the case and the issues involved in it several times, including here, here, here and here. The most recent of these was titled, “Why I think the government will have a tough time winning the Apple e-books antitrust case.” I’m hedging my bets with the title this time, but it’s fairly clear to me that the court got this case wrong.

The predominant sentiment among pundits following the decision seems to be approval (among authors, however, the response to the suit has been decidedly different). Supporters believe it will lower e-book prices and instigate a shift in the electronic publishing industry toward some more-preferred business model. This sort of reasoning is dangerous and inconsistent with principled, restrained antitrust. Neither the government nor its supporting commentators should use, or applaud the use, of antitrust to impose the government’s (or anyone else’s) preferred business model on industry. And lower prices in the short run, while often an indication of increased competition, are not, by themselves, sufficient to determine that a business model is efficient in the long run.

For example, in a recent article, Mark Lemley is quoted supporting the outcome, noting that it may spur a shift toward his preferred model of electronic publishing:

It also makes no sense that publishers, not authors, capture most of the revenue from e-books, when they do very little of the work. I understand why publishers are reluctant to give up their old business model, but if they want to survive in the digital world, it’s time to make some changes.

As noted, there is no basis for using antitrust enforcement to coerce an industry to shift to a particular distribution of profits simply because “it’s time to make some changes.” Lemley’s characterization of the market’s dynamics is also seriously lacking in economic grounding (and the Authors Guild response to the suit linked above suggests the same). The economics of entrepreneurship has an impressive intellectual pedigree that began with Frank Knight, was further developed by Joseph Schumpeter, Israel Kirzner and Harold Demsetz, among others, and continues to today with its inclusion as a factor of production. (On the development of this tradition and especially Harold Demsetz’s important contribution to it, see here). The implicit claim that publishers’ and authors’ interests (to say nothing of consumers’ interests) are simply at odds, and that the “right” distribution of profits would favor authors over publishers based on the amount of “work” they do is economically baseless. Although it is a common claim, reflecting either idiosyncratic preferences or ignorance about the role of content publishers and distributors in the e-book marketplace and the role of entrepreneurship more generally, it is nonetheless mistaken and has no place in a consumer-welfare-based assessment of the market or antitrust intervention in it.

It’s also utterly unclear how the antitrust suit would do anything to change the relative distribution of profits between publishers and authors. In fact, the availability of direct publishing (offered by both Amazon and Apple) is the most likely disruptor of that dynamic, and authors could only be helped by an increase in competition among platforms—in other words, by Apple’s successful entry into the market.

Apple entered the e-books market as a relatively small upstart battling a dominant incumbent. That it did so by offering publishers (suppliers) attractive terms to deal with its new iBookstore is no different than a new competitor in any industry offering novel products or loss-leader prices to attract customers and build market share. When new entry then induces an industry-wide shift toward the new entrants’ products, prices or business model it’s usually called “competition,” and lauded as the aim of properly functioning markets. The same should be true here.

Despite the court’s claim that

there is overwhelming evidence that the Publisher Defendants joined with each other in a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy,

that evidence is actually extremely weak. What is unclear is why the publishers would need a conspiracy when they rarely compete against each other directly.

The court states that

To protect their then-existing business model, the Publisher Defendants agreed to raise the prices of e-books by taking control of retail pricing.

But despite the use of the antitrust trigger-words, “agreed to raise prices,” this agreement is not remotely clear, and rests entirely on circumstantial evidence (more on this later). None of the evidence suggests actual agreement over price, and none of the evidence demonstrates conclusively any real incentive for the publishers to reach “agreement” at all. In actuality, publishers rarely compete against each other directly (least of all on price); instead, for each individual publisher (and really for each individual title), the most relevant competition for this case is between the e-book version of a particular title and its physical counterpart. In this situation it should matter little to any particular e-book’s sales whether every other e-book in the world is sold at the same price or even a lower price.

While the opinion asserts that each publisher

could also expect to lose substantial sales if they unilaterally raised the prices of their own e-books and none of their competitors followed suit,

it also states that

there is no evidence that the Publisher Defendants have ever competed with each other on price. To the contrary, several of the Publishers’ CEOs explained that they have not competed with each other on that basis.

These statements are difficult to reconcile, but the evidence supports the latter statement, not the former.

The only explanation offered by the court for the publishers’ alleged need for concerted action is an ambiguous claim that Amazon would capitulate in shifting to the agency model only if every publisher pressured it to do so simultaneously. The court claims that

if the Publisher Defendants were going to take control of e-book pricing and move the price point above $9.99, they needed to act collectively; any other course would leave an individual Publisher vulnerable to retaliation from Amazon.

But it’s not clear why this would be so.

On the one hand, if Apple really were the electronic publishing juggernaut implied by this antitrust action, this concern should be minimal: Publishers wouldn’t need Amazon and could simply sell their e-books through Apple’s iBookstore. In this case the threat of even any individual publisher’s “retaliation” against Amazon (decamping to Apple) would suffice to shift relative bargaining power between the publishers and Amazon, and concerted action wouldn’t be necessary. On this theory, the fact that it was only after Apple’s entry that Amazon agreed to shift to the agency model—a fact cited by the court many times to support its conclusions—is utterly unremarkable.

That prices may have shifted as well is equally unremarkable: The agency model puts pricing decisions in publishers’ hands (who, as I’ve previously discussed, have very different incentives than Amazon) where before Amazon had control over prices. Moreover, even when Apple presented evidence that average e-book prices actually fell after its entrance into the market, the court demanded that Apple prove a causal relationship between its entrance and lower overall prices. (Even the DOJ’s own evidence shows, at worst, little change in price, despite its heated claims to the contrary.) But the burden of proof in such cases rests with the government to prove that Apple caused prices to rise, not for Apple to explain why they fell.

On the other hand, if the loss of Amazon as a retail outlet were really so significant for publishers, Apple’s ability to function as the lynchpin of the alleged conspiracy is seriously questionable. While the agency model coupled with the persistence of $9.99 pricing by Amazon would seem to mean reduced revenue for publishers on each book sold through Apple’s store, the relatively trivial number of Apple sales compared with Amazon’s, particularly at the outset, would be of little concern to publishers, and thus to Amazon. In this case it is difficult to believe that publishers would threaten their relationships with Amazon for the sake of preserving the return on their newly negotiated contracts with Apple (and even more difficult to believe that Amazon would capitulate), and the claimed coordinating effects of the MFN provisions is difficult to sustain.

The story with respect to Amazon is questionable for another reason. While the court claims that the publishers’ concern with Amazon’s $9.99 pricing was its effect on physical book sales, it is extremely hard to believe that somehow $12.99 for the electronic version of a $30 (or, often, even more expensive) physical book would be significantly less damaging to physical book sales. Moreover, the evidence put forth by the DOJ and found persuasive by the court all pointed to e-book revenues alone, not physical book sales, as the issue of most concern to publishers (thus, for example, Steve Jobs wrote to HarperCollins’ CEO that it could “[k]eep going with Amazon at $9.99. You will make a bit more money in the short term, but in the medium term Amazon will tell you they will be paying you 70% of $9.99. They have shareholders too.”).

Moreover, as Joshua Gans points out, the agency model that Amazon may have entered into with the publishers would have been particularly unhelpful in ensuring monopoly returns for the publishers (we don’t know the exact terms of their contracts, however, and there are reports from trial that Amazon’s terms were “identical” to Apple’s):

While Apple gave publishers a 70 percent share of book sales and the ability to set their own price, Amazon offered a menu. If you price below $9.99 for a book, Amazon’s share will be 70 percent but if you price above $10, Amazon only returns 35 percent to the publisher. Amazon also charged publishers a delivery fee based on the book’s size (in kb).

Thus publishers could, of course, raise prices to $12.99 in both Apple’s and Amazon’s e-book stores, but, if this effective price cap applied, doing so would result in a significant loss of revenue from Amazon. In other words, the court’s claim—that, having entered into MFNs with Apple, the publishers then had to move Amazon to the agency model to ensure that they didn’t end up being forced by the MFNs to sell books via Apple (on the less-attractive agency terms) at Amazon’s $9.99—is far-fetched. To the extent that raising Amazon’s prices above $10 may have cut royalties almost in half, the MFNs with Apple would be extremely unlikely to have such a powerful effect. But, as noted above, because of the relative sales volumes involved the same dynamic would have applied even under identical terms.

It is true, of course, that Apple cares about price differences between books sold through its iBookstore and the same titles sold through other electronic retailers—and thus it imposed MFN clauses on the publishers. But this is not anticompetitive. In fact, by facilitating Apple’s entry, the MFN clauses plainly increased competition by introducing a new competitor to the industry. What’s more, the terms of Apple’s agreements with the publishers exactly mirrors the terms it uses for apps and music sold through the iTunes store, as well. And as Gordon Crovitz noted:

As this column reported when the case was brought last year, Apple executive Eddy Cue in 2011 turned down my effort to negotiate different terms for apps by news publishers by telling me: “I don’t think you understand. We can’t treat newspapers or magazines any differently than we treat FarmVille.” His point was clear: The 30% revenue-share model is how Apple does business with everyone. It is not, as the government alleges, a scheme Apple concocted to fix prices with book publishers.

Another important error in the case — and, unfortunately, it is one to which Apple’s lawyers acceded—is the treatment of “trade e-books” as the relevant market. For antitrust purposes, there is no generalized e-book (or physical book, for that matter) market. As noted above, the court itself acknowledged that the publishers “have [n]ever competed with each other on price.” The price of Stephen King’s latest novel likely has, at best, a trivial effect on sales of…nearly every other fiction book published, and probably zero effect on sales of non-fiction books.

This is important because the court’s opinion turns on mostly circumstantial evidence of an alleged conspiracy among publishers to raise prices and on the role of concerted action in protecting publishers from being “undercut” by their competitors. But in a world where publishers don’t compete on price (and where the alleged agreement would have reduced the publishers’ revenues in the short run and done little if anything to shore up physical book sales in the long run), it is far-fetched to interpret this evidence as the court does—to infer a conspiracy to raise prices.

Meanwhile, by restricting itself to consideration of competitive effects in the e-book market alone, the court also inappropriately and without commentary dispenses with Apple’s pro-competitive justifications for its conduct. Put simply, Apple contends that its entry into the e-book retail and reader markets was facilitated by its contract terms. But the court ignores these arguments.

On the one hand, it does so because it treats this as a per se case, in which procompetitive effects are irrelevant. But the court’s determination to treat this as a per se case—with its lengthy recitation of relevant legal precedent and only cursory application of precedent to the facts of the case—is suspect. As I have noted before:

What would [justify per se treatment] is if the publishers engaged in concerted action to negotiate these more-favorable terms with other publishers, and what would be problematic for Apple is if its agreement with each publisher facilitated that collusion.

But I don’t see any persuasive evidence that the terms of Apple’s deals with each publisher did any such thing. For MFNs to perform the function alleged by the DOJ it seems to me that the MFNs would have to contribute to the alleged agreement between the publishers, just as the actions of the vertical co-conspirators in Interstate Circuit and Toys-R-Us were alleged to facilitate coordination. But neither the agency agreement itself nor the MFN and price cap terms in the contracts in any way affected the publishers’ incentive to compete with each other. Nor, as noted above, did they require any individual publisher to cause its books to be sold at higher prices through other distributors.

Even if it is true that the publishers participated in a per se illegal horizontal price fixing scheme (and despite the court’s assertion that this is beyond dispute, the evidence is not nearly so clear as the court suggests), Apple’s unique role in that alleged scheme can’t be analyzed in the same fashion. As Leegin notes (and the court in this case quotes), for conduct to merit per se treatment it must “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” But the conduct at issue here—whether somehow coupled with a horizontal price fixing scheme or not—doesn’t meet this standard. The agency model, the MFN terms in the publishers’ contracts with Apple, and the efforts by Apple to secure broad participation by the largest publishers before entering the market are all potentially—if not likely—procompetitive. And output seems to have increased substantially following Apple’s entry into the e-book retail market.

In short, I continue to believe that the facts of this case do not merit per se treatment, and there is a good chance the court’s opinion could be overturned on this ground. For this reason, its rejection of Apple’s procompetitive arguments was inappropriate.

But even in its brief “even under the rule of reason…” analysis, the court improperly rejects Apple’s procompetitive arguments. The court’s consideration of these arguments is basically summed up here:

The pro-competitive effects to which Apple has pointed, including its launch of the iBookstore, the technical novelties of the iPad, and the evolution of digital publishing more generally, are phenomena that are independent of the Agreements and therefore do not demonstrate any pro-competitive effects flowing from the Agreements.

But this is factually inaccurate. Apple has claimed that its entry—and thus at minimum its development and marketing of the iPad as an e-reader and its creation of the iBookstore—were indeed functions of the contract terms and the simultaneous acceptance by the largest publishers of these terms.

The court goes on to assert that, even if the claimed pro-competitive effect was the introduction of competition into the e-book market,

Apple demanded, as a precondition of its entry into the market, that it would not have to compete with Amazon on price. Thus, from the consumer’s perspective — a not unimportant perspective in the field of antitrust — the arrival of the iBookstore brought less price competition and higher prices.

In making this claim the court effectively—and improperly—condemns MFNs to per se illegal status. In doing so the court claims that its opinion’s reach is not so broad:

this Court has not found that any of these [agency agreements, MFN clauses, etc.]…components of Apple’s entry into the market were wrongful, either alone or in combination. What was wrongful was the use of those components to facilitate a conspiracy with the Publisher Defendants”

But the claimed absence of retail price competition that accompanied Apple’s entry is entirely a function of the MFN clauses: Whether at $9.99 or $12.99, the MFN clauses were what ensured that Apple’s and Amazon’s prices would be the same, and disclaimer or not they are swept in to the court’s holding.

This effective condemnation of MFN clauses, while plainly sought by the DOJ, is simply inappropriate as a matter of law. In order to condemn Apple’s conduct under the per se rule, the court relies on the operation of the MFNs in allegedly reducing competition and raising prices to make its case. But that these do not “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and reduce output” is clear. While the DOJ may view such terms otherwise (more on this here and here), courts have not done so, and Leegin’s holding that such vertical restraints are to be assessed under the rule of reason still holds. The court’s use of the per se standard and its refusal to consider Apple’s claimed pro-competitive effects are improper.

Thus I (somewhat more cautiously this time…) suggest that the court’s decision may be overturned on appeal, and I most certainly think it should be. It seems plainly troubling as a matter of economics, and inappropriate as a matter of law.

Filed under: antitrust, cartels, contracts, doj, e-books, economics, error costs, law and economics, litigation, market definition, markets, MFNs, monopolization, resale price maintenance, technology, vertical restraints Tagged: agency model, Amazon, antitrust, antitrust enforcement, Apple, doj, e-books, IBooks, iBookstore, major publishers, MFN, most favored nations clause, per se, price-fixing, Publishing, publishing industry, Rule of reason, vertical restraints

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Why I think the government will have a tough time winning the Apple e-books antitrust case

Popular Media Trial begins today in the Southern District of New York in United States v. Apple (the Apple e-books case), which I discussed previously here. Along . . .

Trial begins today in the Southern District of New York in United States v. Apple (the Apple e-books case), which I discussed previously here. Along with co-author Will Rinehart, I also contributed an  essay to a discussion of the case in Concurrences (alongside contributions from Jon Jacobson and Mark Powell, among others).

Much of my writing on the case has essentially addressed it as a rule of reason case, assessing the economic merits of Apple’s contract terms. And as I mention in this Reuters article from yesterday on the case, one of the key issues in this analysis (and one of the government’s key targets in the case) is the use of MFN clauses.

But as Josh pointed out in a blog post last year,

my hunch is that if the case is litigated its legacy will be as an “agreement” case rather than what it contributes to rule of reason analysis.  In other words, if Apple gets to the rule of reason, the DOJ (like most plaintiffs in rule of reason cases) are likely to lose — especially in light of at least preliminary evidence of dramatic increases in output.  The critical question — I suspect — will be about proof of an actual naked price fixing agreement among publishers and Apple, and as a legal matter, what evidence is sufficient to establish that agreement for the purposes of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

He’s likely correct, of course, that a central question at trial will be whether or not this is a per se or rule of reason case, and that trial will focus in significant part on the sufficiency of the evidence of agreement. But because this determination will turn considerably on the purpose and function of the MFN and price cap terms in Apple’s agreements with the publishers, I don’t think there should (or will) be much difference. Nor do I think the government should (or will) win.

Before the court can apply the per se rule, it must satisfy itself that the conduct at issue “would always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” But it is not true as a matter of economics — and certainly not true as a matter of law — that MFNs meet this standard.

After State Oil v. Kahn there can be no question about the rule of reason (if not per se legal) status of price caps. And as the Court noted in Leegin:

Resort to per se rules is confined to restraints, like those mentioned, “that would always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” To justify a per se prohibition a restraint must have “manifestly anticompetitive” effects, and “lack any redeeming virtue.

As a consequence, the per se rule is appropriate only after courts have had considerable experience with the type of restraint at issue, and only if courts can predict with confidence that it would be invalidated in all or almost all instances under the rule of reason. It should come as no surprise, then, that “we have expressed reluctance to adopt per se rules with regard to restraints imposed in the context of business relationships where the economic impact of certain practices is not immediately obvious.” And, as we have stated, a “departure from the rule-of-reason standard must be based upon demonstrable economic effect rather than . . . upon formalistic line drawing.”

After Leegin, all vertical non-price restraints, including MFNs, are assessed under the rule of reason.  Courts neither have “considerable experience” with MFNs, nor can they remotely “predict with confidence that they would be invalidated in all or almost all instances under the rule of reason.” As a recent article in Antitrust points out,

The DOJ and FTC have brought approximately ten cases over the last two decades challenging MFNs. Most of these cases involved the health care industry and all were resolved by consent judgments.

Even if the court does take a harder look at whether a per se rule should govern, however, as a practical matter there is not likely to be much difference between a “does this merit per se treatment” analysis and analysis of the facts under the rule of reason. As the Court pointed out in California Dental Association,

The truth is that our categories of analysis of anticompetitive effect are less fixed than terms like “per se,” “quick look,” and “rule of reason” tend to make them appear. We have recognized, for example, that “there is often no bright line separating per se from Rule of Reason analysis,” since “considerable inquiry into market conditions” may be required before the application of any so-called “per se” condemnation is justified. “[W]hether the ultimate finding is the product of a presumption or actual market analysis, the essential inquiry remains the same–whether or not the challenged restraint enhances competition.”

And as my former classmate Tom Nachbar points out in a recent article,

it’s hard to identity much relative simplicity in the per se rule. Indeed, the moniker “per se” has become somewhat misleading, as cases determining whether to apply the per se or rule of reason become as long as ones actually applying the rule of reason itself.

Of course that doesn’t end the analysis, and the government’s filings do all they can to sidestep the direct antitrust treatment of MFNs and instead assert that they (and other evidence alleged) permit the court to infer Apple’s participation as the coordinator of a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy among the publishers.

But as Apple argues in its filings,

The[ relevant] cases mandate an inquiry into the possibility that the challenged contract terms and negotiation approach were in Apple’s independent economic interests. The evidence is overwhelming—not just possible—that Apple acted for its own valid business reasons and not to “raise consumer prices market-wide.”…Plaintiffs ask this Court to infer Apple’s participation in a conspiracy from (1) its MFN and price cap terms and (2) negotiations with publishers.

* * *

What is obvious, however, is that Apple has not fixed prices with its competitors. What is remarkable is that the government seeks to impose grave legal consequences on an inherently pro-competitive act—entry—accomplished via agency, an MFN, and price caps, none of which is per se unlawful.

The government’s strenuous objection to Apple’s interpretation of the controlling Supreme Court authority, Monsanto v. Spray-Rite, notwithstanding, it’s difficult to see the MFN clauses as evidence of Apple’s participation in the publishers’ alleged conspiracy.

An important point supporting Apple’s argument here is that, unlike the “hubs” in the other “hub and spoke” conspiracies on which the DOJ bases its case, Apple has no significant leverage over the alleged co-conspirators, and thus no power to coordinate — let alone enforce — a price-fixing scheme. As Apple argues in its Opposition brief,

The only “power” Apple could wield over the publishers was the attractiveness of a business opportunity—hardly the “make or break” scenarios found in Interstate Circuit and [Toys-R-Us]. Far from capitulating to Apple’s requested core business terms, the publishers fought Apple tooth and nail and negotiated intensely to the very end, and the largest, Random House, declined.

And as Will and I note in our Concurrences article,

MFNs are essentially an important way of…offering some protection against publishers striking a deal with a competitor that leaves Apple forced to price its ebooks out of the market.

There is nothing, that we know of, in the MFNs or elsewhere in the agreements that requires the publishers to impose higher resale prices elsewhere, or prevents the publishers from selling through Apple at a lower price, if necessary. Most important, for Apple’s negotiated prices to dominate in the market it would have to enjoy market power – a condition, currently at least, that is exceedingly unlikely given its 10% share of the ebook market.

The point is that, even if everything the government alleges about the publishers’ price fixing scheme were true, it’s extremely difficult to see Apple as a co-conspirator in such a scheme. The Supreme Court’s holding in Monsanto stands for nothing if not the principle that courts may not infer a vertical party’s participation in a horizontal price-fixing scheme from the existence of otherwise-legal and -defensible interactions between the vertically related parties. Because MFNs have valid purposes outside the realm of price-fixing, they may not be converted into illegal conduct on Apple’s part simply because they might also “sharpen [a publisher’s] incentives” to try to raise prices elsewhere.

Remember, we are in a world where the requisite anticompetitive conduct can’t be simply the vertical restraint itself. Rather, we’re evaluating whether the vertical restraint was part of a broader anticompetitive scheme among the publishers. For the MFN clauses to be part of that alleged scheme they must have an identifiable place in the scheme.

First of all, it is unremarkable that Apple might offer terms to any individual publisher (or to all publishers independently) that might be more favorable to the publisher than terms it is getting elsewhere; that’s how a new entrant in Apple’s position attracts suppliers. It is likewise unremarkable that Apple would seek to impose terms (like the MFN) that would preserve its ability to offer a publisher’s books for the same price they are offered elsewhere (which is necessary because the agency agreements negotiated by Apple otherwise remove pricing authority from Apple and confer it on the publishers themselves). And finally it is unremarkable that each publisher would try to negotiate similarly favorable terms with other distributors (or, more accurately, continue to try: bargaining over distribution terms with other distributors hardly started only after the agreements were signed with Apple). What would be notable is if the publishers engaged in concerted action to negotiate these more-favorable terms with other publishers, and what would be problematic for Apple is if its agreement with each publisher facilitated that collusion.

But I don’t see any persuasive evidence that the terms of Apple’s deals with each publisher did any such thing. For MFNs to perform the function alleged by the DOJ it seems to me that the MFNs would have to contribute to the alleged agreement between the publishers, just as the actions of the vertical co-conspirators in Interstate Circuit and Toys-R-Us were alleged to facilitate coordination. But neither the agency agreement itself nor the MFN and price cap terms in the contracts in any way affected the publishers’ incentive to compete with each other. Nor, as noted above, did they require any individual publisher to cause its books to be sold at higher prices through other distributors.

On this latter point, the DOJ alleges that the MFNs “sharpen[ed publishers’] incentives” to raise prices:

If a retailer were allowed to remain on wholesale terms, and that retailer continued to price new release e-books at $9.99, the Publisher Defendant would be forced to lower the iBookstore price to match the $9.99 price

Not only does this say nothing about the incentives of the publishers to compete with each other on price (except that it may have increased that incentive by undermining the prevailing $9.99-for-all-books standard), it seems far-fetched to suggest that fear of having to lower prices for books sold in Apple’s relatively trivial corner of the market would have an apreciable effect on a publisher’s incentives to raise prices elsewhere. For what it’s worth, it also seems far-fetched to suggest that Apple’s motivation was to raise prices given that e-book sales generate only about .0005% of Apple’s total revenues.

Beyond this, the DOJ essentially argues that Apple coordinated agreement among the publishers to accept the terms being offered by Apple, with the intent and effect that this would lead to imposition by the publishers of similar terms (and higher prices) on other distributors. Perhaps, but it’s a stretch. And if it is true, it isn’t because of the MFN clauses. Moreover, it isn’t clear to me (maybe I’m missing some obvious controlling case law?) that agreement over the type of contract used amounts to an illegal horizontal agreement; arguably in this case, at least, it is closer to an ancillary restraint or  justified agreement (as in BMI, e.g.) than, say, a group boycott or bid rigging. In any case, if the DOJ has a case at all turning on this scenario, I think it will have to be based entirely on the alleged evidence of direct coordination (i.e., communications between Apple and publishers during dinners and phone calls) rather than the operation of the contract terms themselves.

In any case, it will be interesting to see how the trial unfolds.

Filed under: antitrust, cartels, contracts, doj, e-books, economics, error costs, law and economics, litigation, MFNs, monopolization, resale price maintenance, technology, vertical restraints Tagged: agency model, Amazon, antitrust, Apple, doj, e-book, e-books, iBookstore, major publishers, MFN, most favored nations clause, per se, price-fixing, publishing industry, Rule of reason, Section 1, United States Department of Justice, vertical restraints

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Have Elhauge and Wickelgren Undermined the Rule of Per Se Legality for Above-Cost Loyalty Discounts?

Popular Media Einer Elhauge and Abraham Wickelgren, of Harvard and the University of Texas, respectively, have recently posted to SSRN a pair of provocative papers on loyalty . . .

Einer Elhauge and Abraham Wickelgren, of Harvard and the University of Texas, respectively, have recently posted to SSRN a pair of provocative papers on loyalty discounts (price cuts conditioned on the buyer’s purchasing some amount, usually a percentage of its requirements, from the seller).  Elhauge and Wickelgren take aim at the assertion by myself and others (e.g., Herb Hovenkamp) that loyalty discounts should be per se legal if they result in a discounted per-unit price that is above the seller’s incremental per-unit cost.  E&W would cast the liability net further.

We advocates of per se legality for above-cost loyalty discounts base our position on the fact that such discounts generally cannot exclude aggressive rivals that are as efficient as the discounter.  Suppose, for example, that widgets are normally sold for a dollar each but that a seller whose marginal cost is $.88/widget offers a 10% loyalty rebate to any buyer who purchases 80% of its widget requirements from the seller.  Because the $.90 discounted price exceeds the discounter’s marginal cost, any equally efficient widget producer could compete with the discount by lowering its own price to a level above its cost.

But what if the loyalty rebate actually causes a rival to be less efficient than the discounter? Some have argued that this may occur, even with above-cost loyalty discounts, when scale economies are significant.  Suppose that the market for tennis balls consists of two brands, Pinn and Willson, that current market shares, reflective of consumer demand, are 60% for the Pinn and 40% for Willson,  and that retailers typically stock the two brands in those proportions. Assume also that it costs each manufacturer $.90 to produce a can of tennis balls, that each sells to retailers for $1 per can, and that minimum efficient scale in this market (the lowest production level at which all available scale economies are exploited) occurs at a level of production equal to 35% of market demand. Suppose that Pinn, the dominant manufacturer, offers retailers a 10% loyalty rebate on all purchases made within a year if they buy 70% of their requirements for the year from Pinn.

While the $.90 per unit discounted price is not below Pinn’s cost, it might have the effect of driving Willson, an equally efficient rival, from the market. Willson could avoid losing market share and thus falling below minimum efficient scale only if it matched the full dollar amount of Pinn’s discount on its smaller base of sales. It wouldn’t be able to do so, though, without pricing below its cost.

Consider, for example, a typical retailer that initially (before the rebate announcement) satisfied its requirements by purchasing sixty cans of Pinn for $60 and forty cans of Willson for $40. After implementation of the rebate plan, the retailer could save $7 on its 100-can tennis ball requirements by spending $63 to obtain seventy Pinn cans and $30 to obtain thirty Willson cans. The retailer and others like it would thus have a strong incentive to shift purchases from Willson to Pinn.  To prevent a loss of market share that would drive it below minimum efficient scale, Willson would need to lower its price to provide retailers with the same total dollar discount, but on a smaller base of sales (40% of a typical retailer’s requirements rather than 60%). This would cause it to lower its price below its cost.  For example, Willson could match Pinn’s $7 discount to the retailer described above only by reducing its $1 per-unit price by 17.5 cents ($7.00/40 = $.175), which would require it to price below its cost of $.90 per unit.

When one considers dynamic effects, examples like this don’t really undermine the case for a rule of per se legality for above-cost loyalty discounts. Had the nondominant rival (Willson) charged a price equal to its marginal cost prior to implementation of Pinn’s loyalty rebate, it would have enjoyed a price advantage and likely would have grown its market share to a point at which Pinn’s loyalty rebate strategy could not drive it below minimum efficient scale. Moreover, a strategy that would prevent a nondominant but equally efficient firm from being harmed by a dominant rival’s above-cost loyalty rebate would be for the non-dominant firm to give its own volume discounts from the outset, securing up-front commitments from enough buyers (in exchange for discounted prices) to ensure that its production stayed above minimum efficient scale. Such a strategy, which would obviously benefit consumers, would be encouraged by a rule that evaluated loyalty discounts under straightforward Brooke Group principles and thereby signaled to manufacturers that they must take steps to protect themselves from above-cost loyalty discounts. In the end, then, any equally efficient rival that is committed to engaging in vigorous price competition ought not to be excluded by a dominant seller’s above-cost loyalty rebate.

Moreover, even if a loyalty rebate could occasionally drive an aggressive, equally efficient rival from the market, a rule of per se legality for above-cost loyalty discounts would still be desirable on error cost grounds.  An alternative rule subjecting above-cost loyalty discounts to potential treble damages liability would chill all sorts of non-exclusionary discounting practices, so that the social losses from reduced price competition would exceed any social gains from the elimination of those rare discounts that could exclude aggressive, efficient rivals. In short, the social costs resulting from potential false convinctions under a broader liability rule would overwhelm the social costs from false acquittals under the per se legality rule I have advocated.

The two new papers by Elhauge and Wickelgren contend that I and other per se legality advocates are missing a key anticompetitive threat posed by loyalty discounts even in the absence of scale economies: their potential to chill price competition.

The first E&W paper addresses loyalty discounts involving “buyer commitment”—i.e., a promise by buyers receiving the discount that they will purchase some percentage of their requirements from the discounter (not its rivals) in the future.  According to E&W, the discounter who agrees to this sort of arrangement will be less likely to give discounts to uncommitted (“free”) buyers in the future.  This is because, E&W say, the discounter knows that if it cuts prices to such buyers, it will have to reduce its prices to committed buyers by the agreed-upon discount percentage.  The discounter’s rivals, knowing that the discounter won’t cut prices to attract free buyers, will similarly abstain from aggressive price competition.  “The result,” E&W maintain, “is inflated prices to free buyers, which also means inflated prices to committed buyers because they are priced at a loyalty discount from those free buyer prices.”  Despite these adverse consequences, E&W contend, buyers will agree to competition-reducing loyalty discounts because much of their cost is externalized:  “[W]hen one buyer agrees to a loyalty discount, all buyers suffer from the higher prices that result from less aggressive competition,” so “an incumbent supplier need not compensate an individual buyer who agrees to a loyalty discount for the losses that all other buyers suffer.”

The second E&W paper contends that loyalty discounts may soften price competition and injure consumers even when they do not involve buyer commitment to purchase from the discounter in the future.  According to E&W, “[b]ecause the loyalty discount requires the seller to charge loyal buyers less than buyer who are not covered by the loyalty discount, the seller cannot lower prices to uncovered buyers without also lowering prices to loyal buyers.”  Given the increased cost of competing for uncovered buyers  (i.e., any price concession will require further concessions to covered buyers), the seller is likely to cede uncovered buyers to its rival, which will reduce the rival’s incentive to compete aggressively for buyers covered by the loyalty discount.  In short, E&W contend, the loyalty discount will facilitate a market division scheme between the discounter and its rival.

As is typical for an Elhauge paper, there’s some elaborate modeling and math in both of these papers.  The analysis appears to be rigorous.  It seems to me, though, that there’s a significant problem with both papers: Each assumes that loyalty discounts are structured so that the discounter promises to reduce the price from the amount collected in sales to others.  While I’m reluctant to make sweeping claims about how loyalty discounts are typically structured, I don’t think loyalty discounts usually work this way.

Loyalty discounts could be structured many ways.  The seller could offer a discount from a pre-determined price—e.g., “The price is $1 per widget, but if you purchase at least 80% of your widgets from me, I’ll charge you only $.90/widget.”  Such a discount doesn’t create the incentive effect that underlies E&W’s theories of anticompetitive effect, for there’s no reason for the seller not to reduce others’ widget prices in the future.  Alternatively, the seller could offer a discount off a list price that is subject to change—e.g., “If you purchase 80% of your requirements from me, I’ll charge you 10% less than the posted list price.”  This sort of discount might discourage sellers from lowering list prices, but it shouldn’t dissuade them from also giving others a break from list prices.  Indeed, in many industries hardly anyone pays list price.  The only loyalty discounts that threaten the effects E&W fear are those where the discount is explicitly tied to the price charged to others—e.g., “If you purchase 80% of your requirements from me, I’ll charge you 10% less than the lowest price I’m charging others.”

This last sort of loyalty discount might have the effects E&W predict, but I’ve never seen such a discount.  The loyalty discounts and rebates I encountered as an antitrust lawyer resembled the first two types discussed above: discounts off pre-determined prices or discounts off official list prices (from which price concessions were regularly granted to others).  The loyalty discounts that E&W model really just look like souped-up “Most Favored Nations” clauses, where the seller promises not just to meet, but to beat, the price it offers to other favored buyers.  It may make sense to police such clauses, but wouldn’t we do so using the standards governing MFN clauses rather than the rules and standards governing loyalty discounts?  After all, it’s the seller’s promise to beat its other price concessions, not the buyer’s loyalty, that causes the purported anticompetitive harm.

UPDATE:

I just recalled that this is not the first time we at TOTM have addressed Prof. Elhauge’s models of loyalty discounts containing a Most Favored Nations-like provision. FTC Commissioner-Appointee Josh Wright made a similar point about a paper Elhauge produced before these two.  If you found this post at all interesting, please read Josh’s earlier (and more rigorous) post. Sorry about that, Mr. Commish-to-be.

Filed under: antitrust, economics, error costs, law and economics, regulation

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