Sagers on the Apple e-books case: Why does everybody hate competition so much?

Chris Sagers —  16 February 2016

By Chris Sagers

United States v. Apple has fascinated me continually ever since the instantly-sensational complaint was made public, more than three years ago. Just one small, recent manifestation of the larger theme that makes it so interesting is the improbable range of folks who apparently consider certiorari rather likely—not least some commenters here, and even SCOTUSblog, which listed the case on their “Petitions We’re Watching.” It seems improbable, I say, not because reasonable people couldn’t differ on the policy issues. In this day and age somebody pops up to doubt every antitrust case brought against anybody no matter what. Rather, on the traditional criteria, the case just seems really ill-suited for cert.[*]

But it is in keeping with the larger story that people might expect the Court to take this basically hum-drum fact case in which there’s no circuit split. People have been savaging this case since its beginnings, despite the fact that to almost all antitrust lawyers it was such a legal slam dunk that so long as the government could prove its facts, it couldn’t lose.

And so I’m left with questions I’ve been asking since the case came out. Why, given the straightforward facts, nicely fitting a per se standard generally thought to be well-settled, involving conduct that on the elaborate trial record had no plausible effect except a substantial price increase,[**] do so many people hate this case? Why, more specifically, do so many people think there is something special about it, such that it shouldn’t be subject to the same rules that would apply to anybody else who did what these defendants did?

To be clear, I think the case is interesting. Big time. But what is interesting is not its facts or the underlying conduct or anything about book publishing or technological change or any of that. In other words, I don’t think the case is special. Like Jonathan Jacobson, I think it is simple.  What is remarkable is the reactions it has generated, across the political spectrum.

In the years of its pendency, on any number of panels and teleconferences and brown-bags and so on we’ve heard BigLaw corporate defense lawyers talking about the case like they’re Louis Brandeis. The problem, you see, is not a naked horizontal producer cartel coordinated by a retail entrant with a strong incentive to discipline its retail rival. No, no, no. The problem was actually Amazon, and the problem with Amazon was that it is big. Moreover, this case is about entry, they say, and entry is what antitrust is all about. Entry must be good, because numerosity in and of itself is competition. Consider too the number of BigLaw antitrust partners who’ve publicly argued that Amazon is in fact a monopolist, and that it engaged in predatory pricing, of all things.

When has anyone ever heard this group of people talk like that?

For another example, consider how nearly identical have been the views of left-wing critics like the New America Foundation’s Barry Lynn to those of the Second Circuit dissenter in Apple, the genteel, conservative Bush appointee, Judge Dennis Jacobs. They both claim, as essentially their only argument, that Amazon is a powerful firm, which can be tamed only if publishers can set their own retail prices (even if they do so collusively).

And there are so many other examples. The government’s case was condemned by no less than a Democrat and normally pro-enforcement member of the Senate antitrust committee, as it was by two papers as otherwise divergent as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Meanwhile, the damnedest thing about the case, as I’ll show in a second, is that it frequently causes me to talk like Robert Bork.

So what the hell is going on?

I have a theory.  We in America have almost as our defining character, almost uniquely among developed nations, a commitment to markets, competition, and individual enterprise. But we tend to forget until a case like Apple reminds us that markets, when they work as they are supposed to, are machines for producing pain. Firms fail, people lose jobs, valuable institutions—like, perhaps, the paper book—are sometimes lost. And it can be hard to believe that such a free, decentralized mess will somehow magically optimize organization, distribution, and innovation. I think the reason people find a case like Apple hard to support is that, because we find all that loss and anarchy so hard to swallow, we as a people do not actually believe in competition at all.

I think it helps in making this point to work through the individual arguments that the Apple defendants and their supporters have made, in court and out. For my money, what we find is not only that most of the arguments are not really that strong, but that they are the same arguments that all defendants make, all the time. As it turns out, there has never been an antitrust defendant that didn’t think its market was special.

Taking the arguments I’ve heard, roughly in increasing order of plausibility:

  • Should it matter that discipline of Amazon’s aggressive pricing might help keep the publisher defendants in business? Hardly. While the lamentations of the publishers seem overblown—they may be forced to adapt, and it may not be painless, but that is much more likely at the moment than their insolvency—if they are forced out because they cannot compete on a price basis, then that is exactly what is supposed to happen. Econ 101.
  • Was Apple’s entry automatically good just because it was entry? Emphatically no. There is no rule in antitrust that entry is inherently good, and a number of strong rules to the contrary (consider, for example, the very foundation of the Brook Group predation standard, which is that we should provide no legal protection to less efficient competitors, including entrants). That is for a simple reason: entry is good when causes quality-adjusted price to go down. The opposite occurred in Apple[***]
  • Is Amazon the real villain, so obviously that we should allow its suppliers to regulate its power through horizontal cartel? I rather think not. While I have no doubt that Amazon is a dangerous entity, that probably will merit scrutiny on any number of grounds now or in the future, it seems implausible that it priced e-books predatorily, surely not on the legal standard that currently prevails in the United States. In fact, an illuminating theme in The Everything Store, Brad Stone’s comprehensive study of the company, was the ubiquity of supplier allegations of Amazon’s predation in all kinds of products, complaints that have gone on throughout the company’s two-decade existence. I don’t believe Amazon is any hero or that it poses no threats, but what it’s done in these cases is just charge lower prices. It’s been able to do so in a sustained manner mainly through innovation in distribution. And in any case, whether Amazon is big and bad or whatever, the right tool to constrain it is not a price fixing cartel. No regulator cares less about the public interest.
  • Does it make the case special in some way that a technological change drove the defendants to their conspiracy? No. The technological change afoot was in effect just a change in costs. It is much cheaper to deliver content electronically than in hard copy, not least because as things have unfolded, consumers have actually paid for and own most of the infrastructure. To that extent there’s nothing different about Apple than any case in which an innovation in production or distribution has given one player a cost advantage. In fact, the publishers’ primary need to defend against pricing of e-books at some measure of their actual cost is that the publishers’ whole structure is devoted to an expensive intermediating function that becomes largely irrelevant with digital distribution.
  • Is there reason to believe that a horizontal cartel orchestrated by a powerful distributor will achieve better quality-adjusted prices, which I take to be Geoff Manne’s overall theme? I mean, come on. This is essentially a species of destructive competition argument, that otherwise healthy markets can be so little trusted efficiently to supply products that customers want that we’ll put the government to a full rule of reason challenge to attack a horizontal cartel? Do we believe in competition at all?
  • Should it matter that valuable cultural institutions may be at risk, including the viability of paper books, independent bookstores, and perhaps the livelihoods of writers or even literature itself? This seems more troubling than the other points, but hardly is unique to the case or a particularly good argument for self-help by cartel. Consider, if you will, another, much older case. The sailing ship industry was thousands of years old and of great cultural and human significance when it met its demise in the 1870s at the hands of the emerging steamship industry. Ships that must await the fickle winds cannot compete with those that can offer the reliable, regular departures that shipper customers desire. There followed a period of desperate price war following which the sail industry was destroyed. That was sad, because tall-masted sailing ships are very swashbuckling and fun, and were entwined in our literature and culture. But should we have allowed the two industries to fix their prices, to preserve sailing ships as a living technology?

There are other arguments, and we could keep working through them one by one, but the end result is the same. The arguments mostly are weak, and even those with a bit more heft do nothing more than pose the problem inherent in that very last point. Healthy markets sometimes produce pain, with genuinely regrettable consequences.  But that just forces us to ask: do we believe in competition or don’t we?

___________

[*] Except possibly for one narrow issue, Apple is at this point emphatically a fact case, and the facts were resolved on an extensive record by an esteemed trial judge, in a long and elaborate opinion, and left undisturbed on appeal (even in the strongly worded dissent). The one narrow issue that is actually a legal one, and that Apple mainly stresses in its petition—whether in the wake of Leegin the hub in a hub-and-spoke arrangement can face per se liability—is one on which I guess people could plausibly disagree. But even when that is the case this Court virtually never grants cert. in the absence of a significant circuit split, and here there isn’t one.

Apple points only to one other Circuit decision, the Third Circuit’s Toledo Mack. It is true as Apple argues that a passage in Toledo Mack seemed to read language from Leegin fairly broadly, and to apply even when there is horizontal conspiracy at the retail level. But Toledo Mack was not a hub-and-spoke case. While plaintiff alleged a horizontal conspiracy among retailers of heavy trucks, and Mack Trucks later acquiescence in it, Mack played no role in coordinating the conspiracy. Separately, whether Toledo Mack really conflicts with Apple or not, the law supporting the old per se rule against hub-and-spoke conspiracies is pretty strong (take a look, for example, at pp. 17-18 of the Justice Department’s opposition brief.

So, I suppose one might think there is no distinction between a hub-and-spoke and a case like Toledo Mack, in which a manufacturer merely agreed after the fact to assist an existing retail conspiracy, and that there is therefore a circuit split, but that would be rather in contrast to a lot of Supreme Court authority. On the other hand, if there is some legal difference between a hub-and-spoke and the facts of Toledo Mack, then Toledo Mack is relevant only if it is understood to have read Leegin to apply to all “vertical” conduct, including true hub-and-spoke agreements. But that would be a broad reading indeed of both Leegin and Toledo Mack. It would require believing that Leegin reversed sub silentio a number of important decisions on an issue that was not before the Court in Leegin. It would also make a circuit split out of a point that would be only dicta in Toledo Mack. And yes, yes, yes, I know, Judge Jacobs in dissent below himself said that his panel’s decision created a circuit split with Toledo Mack. But I mean, come on. A circuit split means that two holdings are in conflict, not that one bit of dicta commented on some other bit of dicta.

A whole different reason cert. seems improbable is that the issue presented is whether per se treatment was appropriate. But the trial court specifically found the restraint to have been unreasonable under a rule of reason standard. Of course that wouldn’t preclude the Court from reversing the trial court’s holding that the per se rule applies, but it would render a reversal almost certainly academic in the case actually before the Court.

Don’t get me wrong. Nothing the courts do really surprises me anymore, and there are still four members of the Court, even in the wake of Justice Scalia’s passing, who harbor open animosity for antitrust and a strong fondness for Leegin. It is also plausible that those four will see the case Apple’s way, and favor reversing Interstate Circuit (though that seems unlikely to me; read a case like Ticor or North Carolina Dental Examiners if you want to know how Anthony Kennedy feels about naked cartel conduct). But the ideological affinities of the Justices, in and of themselves, just don’t usually turn an otherwise ordinary case into a cert-worthy one.

[**] Yes, yes, yes, Grasshopper, I know, Apple argued that in fact its entry increased quality and consumer choice, and also put on an argument that the output of e-books actually expanded during the period of the publishers’ conspiracy. But, a couple of things. First, as the government observed in some juicy briefing in the case, and Judge Cote found in specific findings, each of Apple’s purported quality enhancements turned out to involve either other firms’ innovations or technological enhancements that appeared in the iPad before Apple ever communicated with the publishers. As for the expanded output argument, it was fairly demolished by the government’s experts, a finding not disturbed even in Judge Jacobs’ dissent.

In any case, any benefit Apple did manage to supply came at the cost of a price increase of fifty freaking percent, across thousands of titles, that were sustained for the entire two years that the conspiracy survived.

[***] There have also been the usual squabbles over factual details that are said to be very important, but these points are especially uninteresting. E.g., the case involved “MFNs” and “agency contracts,” and there is supposed to be some magic in either their vertical nature or the great uncertainty of their consequences that count against per se treatment. There isn’t. Neither the government’s complaint, the district court, nor the Second Circuit attacked the bilateral agreements in and of themselves; on the contrary, both courts emphatically stressed that they only found illegal the horizontal price fixing conspiracy and Apple’s role in coordinating it.

Likewise, some stress that the publisher defendants in fact earned slightly less per price-fixed book under their agency agreements than they had with Apple. Why would they do that, if there weren’t some pro-competitive reason? Simple. The real money in trade publishing was not then or now in the puny e-book sector, but in hard-cover, new-release best sellers, which publishers have long sold at very significant mark-ups over cost. Those margins were threatened by Amazon’s very low e-book prices, and the loss on agency sales was worth it to preserve the real money makers.

Chris Sagers

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James A. Thomas Distinguished Professor of Law, Cleveland State University

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