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

Richard Epstein —  15 February 2016

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.

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