Kolasky on the Apple e-books case: Another reminder that “easy labels do not always supply ready answers”
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. Dagher. The 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, Topco, GTE Sylvania, Professional Engineers, BMI, Maricopa, NCAA, Business Electronics, ARCO, California Dental, Dagher, Leegin, American Needle, and, 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.
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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.