In its June 30 decision in United States v. Apple Inc., a three-judge Second Circuit panel departed from sound antitrust reasoning in holding that Apple’s e-book distribution agreement with various publishers was illegal per se. Judge Dennis Jacobs’ thoughtful dissent, which substantially informs the following discussion of this case, is worth a close read.
In 2009, Apple sought to enter the retail market for e-books, as it prepared to launch its first iPad tablet. Apple, however, confronted an e-book monopolist, Amazon (possessor of a 90 percent e-book market share), that was effectively excluding new entrants by offering bestsellers at a loss through its popular Kindle device ($9.99, a price below what Amazon was paying publishers for the e-book book rights). In order to effectively enter the market without incurring a loss itself (by meeting Amazon’s price) or impairing its brand (by charging more than Amazon), Apple approached publishers that dealt with Amazon and offered itself as a competing e-book buyer, subject to the publishers agreeing to a new distribution model that would lower barriers to entry into retail e-book sales. The new publishing model was implemented by three sets of contract terms Apple asked the publishers to accept – agency pricing, tiered price caps, and a most-favored-nation (MFN) clause. (I refer the reader to the full panel majority opinion for a detailed discussion of these clauses.) None of those terms, standing alone, is illegal. Although the publishers were unhappy about Amazon’s below-cost pricing for e-books, no one publisher alone could counter Amazon. Five of the six largest U.S. publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster) agreed to Apple’s terms and jointly convinced Amazon to adopt agency pricing. Apple also encouraged other publishers to implement agency pricing in their contracts with other retailers. The barrier to entry thus removed, Apple entered the retail market as a formidable competitor. Amazon’s retail e-book market share fell, and today stands at 60 percent.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and 31 states sued Apple and the five publishers for conspiring in unreasonable restraint of trade under Sherman Act § 1. The publishers settled (signing consent decrees which prohibited them for a period from restricting e-book retailers’ ability to set prices), but Apple proceeded to a bench trial. A federal district court held that Apple’s conduct as a vertical enabler of a horizontal price conspiracy among the publishers was a per se violation of § 1, and that (in any event) Apple’s conduct would also violate § 1 under the antitrust rule of reason. A majority of the Second Circuit panel affirmed on the ground of per se liability, without having to reach the rule of reason question.
Judge Jacobs’ dissent argued that Apple’s conduct was not per se illegal and also passed muster under the rule of reason. He pointed to three major errors in the majority’s opinion. First, the holding that the vertical enabler of a horizontal price fixing is in per se violation of the antitrust laws conflicts with the Supreme Court’s teaching (in overturning the per se prohibition on resale price maintenance) that a vertical agreement designed to facilitate a horizontal cartel “would need to be held unlawful under the rule of reason.” Leegin Creative Leather Prods, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. 551 U.S. 877, 893 (2007) (emphasis added). Second, the district court failed to recognize that Apple’s role as a vertical player differentiated it from the publishers – it should have considered Apple as a competitor on the distinct horizontal plane of retailers, where Apple competed with Amazon (and with smaller player such as Barnes & Noble). Third, assessed under the rule of reason, Apple’s conduct was “overwhelmingly” procompetitive; Apple was a major potential competitor in a market dominated by a 90 percent monopoly, and was “justifiably unwilling” to enter a market on terms that would assure a loss on sales or exact a toll on its reputation.
Judge Jacobs’ analysis is on point. The Supreme Court’s wise reluctance to condemn any purely vertical contractual restraint under the per se rule reflects a sound understanding that vertical restraints have almost always been found to be procompetitive or competitively neutral. Indeed, vertical agreements that are designed to facilitate entry into an important market dominated by one firm, such as the ones at issue in the Apple case, are especially bad candidates for summary condemnation. Thus, the majority’s decision to apply the per se rule to Apple’s contracts appears particularly out of touch with both scholarship and marketplace realities.
More generally, as Professor Herbert Hovenkamp (the author of the leading antitrust treatise) and other scholars have emphasized, well-grounded antitrust analysis involves a certain amount of preliminary evaluation of a restraint seen in its relevant factual context, before a “per se” or “rule of reason” label is applied. (In the case of truly “naked” secret hard core cartels, which DOJ prosecutes under criminal law, the per se label may be applied immediately.) The Apple panel majority panel botched this analytic step, in failing to even consider that Apple’s restraints could enhance retail competition with Amazon.
The panel majority also appeared overly fixated on the fact that some near-term e-book retail prices rose above Amazon’s previous below cost levels in the wake of Apple’s contracts, without noting the longer term positive implications for the competitive process of new e-book entry. Below-cost prices are not a feature of durable efficient competition, and in this case may well have been a temporary measure aimed at discouraging entry. In any event, what counts in measuring consumer welfare is not short term price, but whether expanded output is being promoted by a business arrangement – a key factor that the majority notably failed to address. (It appears highly probable that the fall in Amazon’s e-book retail market share, and the invigoration of e-book competition, have generated output and welfare levels higher than those that would have prevailed had Amazon maintained its monopoly. This is bolstered by Apple’s showing, which the majority does not deny, that in the two years following the “conspiracy” among Apple and the publishers, prices across the e-book market as a whole fell slightly and total output increased.)
Finally, Judge Jacobs’ dissent provides strong arguments in favor of upholding Apple’s conduct under the rule of reason. As the dissent stresses, removal of barriers to entry that shield a monopolist, as in this case, is in line with the procompetitive goals of antitrust law. Another procompetitive effect is the encouragement of innovation (manifested by the enablement of e-book reading with the cutting-edge functions of the iPad), a hallmark and benefit of competition. Another benefit was that the elimination of below-cost pricing helped raise authors’ royalties. Furthermore, in the words of the dissent, any welfare reductions due to Apple’s vertical restrictions are “no more than a slight offset to the competitive benefits that now pervade the relevant market.” (Admittedly that comment is a speculative observation, but in my view very likely a well-founded one.) Finally, as the dissent points out, the district court’s findings demonstrate that Apple could not have entered and competed effectively using other strategies, such as wholesale contracts involving below-cost pricing (like Amazon’s) or higher prices. Summing things up, the dissent explains that “Apple took steps to compete with a monopolist and open the market to more entrants, generating only minor competitive restraints in the process. Its conduct was eminently reasonable; no one has suggested a viable alternative.” In closing, even if one believes a more fulsome application of the rule of reason is called for before reaching the dissent’s conclusion, the dissent does a good job in highlighting the key considerations at play here – considerations that the majority utterly failed to address.
In sum, the Second Circuit panel majority wore jurisprudential blinders in its Apple decision. Like the mesmerized audience at a magic show, it focused in blinkered fashion on a magician’s sleight of hand (the one-dimensional characterization of certain uniform contractual terms), while not paying attention to what was really going on (the impressive welfare-enhancing invigoration of competition in e-book retailing). In other words, the majority decision showed a naïve preference for quick and superficial characterizations of conduct at the expense of a nuanced assessment of the broader competitive context. Perhaps the Second Circuit en banc will have the opportunity to correct the panel’s erroneous understanding of per se and rule of reason analysis. Even better, the Supreme Court may wish to step in to ensure that its thoughtful development of antitrust doctrine in recent years – focused on actual effects and economic efficiency, not on superficial condemnatory labels that ignore marketplace benefits – not be undermined.