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

Geoffrey Manne —  3 June 2013

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.

Geoffrey Manne

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

  1. 

    Professor Manne says “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.” What Professor Manne is missing is the old, but still valid, Paramount Famous Lasky case (S. Ct. 1930). In that case the Court held that an agreement among film distributors to require their customers to agree to an arbitration clause in their contracts, violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

    Whether the publisher or retailer is allowed to set the price of an e-book is not just a “business model,” it is a term of trade in a contract. Competitors should be no more free to agree jointly on that term of trade in their contract than they should be to agree jointly on their price term. Perhaps the agency model is superior. Certainly e-book retailer Apple seemed to think so, and it might well have been perfectly proper for each of the publishers to have agreed with Apple to enter into that arrangement (especially after Leegin). What is not proper is for the competing publishers to use their joint bargaining power to obtain a term of trade they could not otherwise obtain individually from customers, viz Amazon.

    About the only argument in favor of the publishers’ agreement to use the agency model, as opposed to the agency model itself, is that none of the publishers could stand firm and insist upon such a term in negotiations with Amazon without assurance that other publishers wouldn’t break ranks and allow Amazon to set the retail price on e-books it bought from them. Thus, the benefits of the agency model would be lost.

    The problem with that argument is that it an argument that competition itself is unreasonable. As Jacobson and Piro point out in the article that precedes Professor Manne’s article in Concurrences, that argument has been a non-starter almost from the inception of the Sherman Act.