Antitrustifying Contract: Thoughts on Epic Games v. Apple and Apple v. Qualcomm

Jonathan M. Barnett —  26 October 2020

In the hands of a wise philosopher-king, the Sherman Act’s hard-to-define prohibitions of “restraints of trade” and “monopolization” are tools that will operate inevitably to advance the public interest in competitive markets. In the hands of real-world litigators, regulators and judges, those same words can operate to advance competitors’ private interests in securing commercial advantages through litigation that could not be secured through competition in the marketplace. If successful, this strategy may yield outcomes that run counter to antitrust law’s very purpose.

The antitrust lawsuit filed by Epic Games against Apple in August 2020, and Apple’s antitrust lawsuit against Qualcomm (settled in April 2019), suggest that antitrust law is heading in this unfortunate direction.

From rent-minimization to rent-maximization

The first step in converting antitrust law from an instrument to minimize rents to an instrument to maximize rents lies in expanding the statute’s field of application on the apparently uncontroversial grounds of advancing the public interest in “vigorous” enforcement. In surprisingly short order, this largely unbounded vision of antitrust’s proper scope has become the dominant fashion in policy discussions, at least as expressed by some legislators, regulators, and commentators.

Following the new conventional wisdom, antitrust law has pursued over the past decades an overly narrow path, consequently overlooking and exacerbating a panoply of social ills that extend well beyond the mission to “merely” protect the operation of the market pricing mechanism. This line of argument is typically coupled with the assertion that courts, regulators and scholars have been led down this path by incumbents that welcome the relaxed scrutiny of a purportedly deferential antitrust policy.

This argument, and related theory of regulatory capture, has things roughly backwards.

Placing antitrust law at the service of a largely undefined range of social purposes set by judicial and regulatory fiat threatens to render antitrust a tool that can be easily deployed to favor the private interests of competitors rather than the public interest in competition. Without the intellectual discipline imposed by the consumer welfare standard (and, outside of per se illegal restraints, operationalized through the evidentiary requirement of competitive harm), the rhetoric of antitrust provides excellent cover for efforts to re-engineer the rules of the game in lieu of seeking to win the game as it has been played.

Epic Games v. Apple

A nascent symptom of this expansive form of antitrust is provided by the much-publicized lawsuit brought by Epic Games, the maker of the wildly popular video game, Fortnite, against Apple, the operator of the even more wildly popular App Store. On August 13, 2020, Epic added a “direct” payment processing services option to its Fortnite game, which violated the developer terms of use that govern the App Store. In response, Apple exercised its contractual right to remove Fortnite from the App Store, triggering Fortnite’s antitrust suit. The same sequence has ensued between Epic Games and Google in connection with the Google Play Store. Both litigations are best understood as a breach of contract dispute cloaked in the guise of an antitrust cause of action.

In suggesting that a jury trial would be appropriate in Epic Games’ suit against Apple, the district court judge reportedly stated that the case is “on the frontier of antitrust law” and [i]t is important enough to understand what real people think.” That statement seems to suggest that this is a close case under antitrust law. I respectfully disagree. Based on currently available information and applicable law, Epic’s argument suffers from two serious vulnerabilities that would seem to be difficult for the plaintiff to overcome.

A contestably narrow market definition

Epic states three related claims: (1) Apple has a monopoly in the relevant market, defined as the App Store, (2) Apple maintains its monopoly by contractually precluding developers from distributing iOS-compatible versions of their apps outside the App Store, and (3) Apple maintains a related monopoly in the payment processing services market for the App Store by contractually requiring developers to use Apple’s processing service.

This market definition, and the associated chain of reasoning, is subject to significant doubt, both as a legal and factual matter.

Epic’s narrow definition of the relevant market as the App Store (rather than app distribution platforms generally) conveniently results in a 100% market share for Apple. Inconveniently, federal case law is generally reluctant to adopt single-brand market definitions. While the Supreme Court recognized in 1992 a single-brand market in Eastman Kodak Co. v. Image Technical Services, the case is widely considered to be an outlier in light of subsequent case law. As a federal district court observed in Spahr v. Leegin Creative Leather Products (E.D. Tenn. 2008): “Courts have consistently refused to consider one brand to be a relevant market of its own when the brand competes with other potential substitutes.”

The App Store would seem to fall into this typical category. The customer base of existing and new Fortnite users can still accessthe gamethrough multiple platforms and on multiple devices other than the iPhone, including a PC, laptop, game console, and non-Apple mobile devices. (While Google has also removed Fortnite from the Google Play store due to the added direct payment feature, users can, at some inconvenience, access the game manually on Android phones.)

Given these alternative distribution channels, it is at a minimum unclear whether Epic is foreclosed from reaching a substantial portion of its consumer base, which may already access the game on alternative platforms or could potentially do so at moderate incremental transaction costs. In the language of platform economics, it appears to be technologically and economically feasible for the target consumer base to “multi-home.” If multi-homing and related switching costs are low, even a 100% share of the App Store submarket would not translate into market power in the broader and potentially more economically relevant market for app distribution generally.

An implausible theory of platform lock-in

Even if it were conceded that the App Store is the relevant market, Epic’s claim is not especially persuasive, both as an economic and a legal matter. That is because there is no evidence that Apple is exploiting any such hypothetically attributed market power to increase the rents extracted from developers and indirectly impose deadweight losses on consumers.

In the classic scenario of platform lock-in, a three-step sequence is observed: (1) a new firm acquires a high market share in a race for platform dominance, (2) the platform winner is protected by network effects and switching costs, and (3) the entrenched platform “exploits” consumers by inflating prices (or imposing other adverse terms) to capture monopoly rents. This economic model is reflected in the case law on lock-in claims, which typically requires that the plaintiff identify an adverse change by the defendant in pricing or other terms after users were allegedly locked-in.

The history of the App Store does not conform to this model. Apple has always assessed a 30% fee and the same is true of every other leading distributor of games for the mobile and PC market, including Google Play Store, App Store’s rival in the mobile market, and Steam, the dominant distributor of video games in the PC market. This long-standing market practice suggests that the 30% fee is most likely motivated by an efficiency-driven business motivation, rather than seeking to entrench a monopoly position that Apple did not enjoy when the practice was first adopted. That is: even if Apple is deemed to be a “monopolist” for Section 2 purposes, it is not taking any “illegitimate” actions that could constitute monopolization or attempted monopolization.

The logic of the 70/30 split

Uncovering the business logic behind the 70/30 split in the app distribution market is not too difficult.

The 30% fee appears to be a low transaction-cost practice that enables the distributor to fund a variety of services, including app development tools, marketing support, and security and privacy protections, all of which are supplied at no separately priced fee and therefore do not require service-by-service negotiation and renegotiation. The same rationale credibly applies to the integrated payment processing services that Apple supplies for purposes of in-app purchases.

These services deliver significant value and would otherwise be difficult to replicate cost-effectively, protect the App Store’s valuable stock of brand capital (which yields positive spillovers for app developers on the site), and lower the costs of joining and participating in the App Store. Additionally, the 30% fee cross-subsidizes the delivery of these services to the approximately 80% of apps on the App Store that are ad-based and for which no fee is assessed, which in turn lowers entry costs and expands the number and variety of product options for platform users. These would all seem to be attractive outcomes from a competition policy perspective.

Epic’s objection

Epic would object to this line of argument by observing that it only charges a 12% fee to distribute other developers’ games on its own Epic Games Store.

Yet Epic’s lower fee is reportedly conditioned, at least in some cases, on the developer offering the game exclusively on the Epic Games Store for a certain period of time. Moreover, the services provided on the Epic Games Store may not be comparable to the extensive suite of services provided on the App Store and other leading distributors that follow the 30% standard. Additionally, the user base a developer can expect to access through the Epic Games Store is in all likelihood substantially smaller than the audience that can be reached through the App Store and other leading app and game distributors, which is then reflected in the higher fees charged by those platforms.

Hence, even the large fee differential may simply reflect the higher services and larger audiences available on the App Store, Google Play Store and other leading platforms, as compared to the Epic Games Store, rather than the unilateral extraction of market rents at developers’ and consumers’ expense.

Antitrust is about efficiency, not distribution

Epic says the standard 70/30 split between game publishers and app distributors is “excessive” while others argue that it is historically outdated.

Neither of these are credible antitrust arguments. Renegotiating the division of economic surplus between game suppliers and distributors is not the concern of antitrust law, which (as properly defined) should only take an interest if either (i) Apple is colluding on the 30% fee with other app distributors, or (ii) Apple is taking steps that preclude entry into the apps distribution market and lack any legitimate business justification. No one claims evidence for the former possibility and, without further evidence, the latter possibility is not especially compelling given the uniform use of the 70/30 split across the industry (which, as noted, can be derived from a related set of credible efficiency justifications). It is even less compelling in the face of evidence that output is rapidly accelerating, not declining, in the gaming app market: in the first half of 2020, approximately 24,500 new games were added to the App Store.

If this conclusion is right, then Epic’s lawsuit against Apple does not seem to have much to do with the public interest in preserving market competition.

But it clearly has much to do with the business interest of an input supplier in minimizing its distribution costs and maximizing its profit margin. That category includes not only Epic Games but Tencent, the world’s largest video game publisher and the holder of a 40% equity stake in Epic. Tencent also owns Riot Games (the publisher of “League of Legends”), an 84% stake in Supercell (the publisher of “Clash of Clans”), and a 5% stake in Activision Blizzard (the publisher of “Call of Duty”). It is unclear how an antitrust claim that, if successful, would simply redistribute economic value from leading game distributors to leading game developers has any necessary relevance to antitrust’s objective to promote consumer welfare.

The prequel: Apple v. Qualcomm

Ironically (and, as Dirk Auer has similarly observed), there is a symmetry between Epic’s claims against Apple and the claims previously pursued by Apple (and, concurrently, the Federal Trade Commission) against Qualcomm.

In that litigation, Apple contested the terms of the licensing arrangements under which Qualcomm made available its wireless communications patents to Apple (more precisely, Foxconn, Apple’s contract manufacturer), arguing that the terms were incompatible with Qualcomm’s commitment to “fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory” (“FRAND”) licensing of its “standard-essential” patents (“SEPs”). Like Epic v. Apple, Apple v. Qualcomm was fundamentally a contract dispute, with the difference that Apple was in the position of a third-party beneficiary of the commitment that Qualcomm had made to the governing standard-setting organization. Like Epic, Apple sought to recharacterize this contractual dispute as an antitrust question, arguing that Qualcomm’s licensing practices constituted anticompetitive actions to “monopolize” the market for smartphone modem chipsets.

Theory meets evidence

The rhetoric used by Epic in its complaint echoes the rhetoric used by Apple in its briefs and other filings in the Qualcomm litigation. Apple (like the FTC) had argued that Qualcomm imposed a “tax” on competitors by requiring that any purchaser of Qualcomm’s chipsets concurrently enter into a license for Qualcomm’s SEP portfolio relating to 3G and 4G/LTE-enabled mobile communications devices.

Yet the history and performance of the mobile communications market simply did not track Apple’s (and the FTC’s continuing) characterization of Qualcomm’s licensing fee as a socially costly drag on market growth and, by implication, consumer welfare.

If this assertion had merit, then the decades-old wireless market should have exhibited a dismal history of increasing prices, slow user adoption and lagging innovation. In actuality, the wireless market since its inception has grown relentlessly, characterized by declining quality-adjusted prices, expanding output, relentless innovation, and rapid adoption across a broad range of income segments.

Given this compelling real-world evidence, the only remaining line of argument (still being pursued by the FTC) that could justify antitrust intervention is a theoretical conjecture that the wireless market might have grown even faster under some alternative IP licensing arrangement. This assertion rests precariously on the speculative assumption that any such arrangement would have induced the same or higher level of aggregate investment in innovation and commercialization activities. That fragile chain of “what if” arguments hardly seems a sound basis on which to rewrite the legal infrastructure behind the billions of dollars of licensing transactions that support the economically thriving smartphone market and the even larger ecosystem that has grown around it.

Antitrust litigation as business strategy

Given the absence of compelling evidence of competitive harm from Qualcomm’s allegedly anticompetitive licensing practices, Apple’s litigation would seem to be best interpreted as an economically rational attempt by a downstream producer to renegotiate a downward adjustment in the fees paid to an upstream supplier of critical technology inputs. (In fact, those are precisely the terms on which Qualcomm in 2015 settled the antitrust action brought against it by China’s competition regulator, to the obvious benefit of local device producers.) The Epic Games litigation is a mirror image fact pattern in which an upstream supplier of content inputs seeks to deploy antitrust law strategically for the purposes of minimizing the fees it pays to a leading downstream distributor.

Both litigations suffer from the same flaw. Private interests concerning the division of an existing economic value stream—a business question that is matter of indifference from an efficiency perspective—are erroneously (or, at least, reflexively) conflated with the public interest in preserving the free play of competitive forces that maximizes the size of the economic value stream.

Conclusion: Remaking the case for “narrow” antitrust

The Epic v. Apple and Apple v. Qualcomm disputes illustrate the unproductive rent-seeking outcomes to which antitrust law will inevitably be led if, as is being widely advocated, it is decoupled from its well-established foundation in promoting consumer welfare—and not competitor welfare.

Some proponents of a more expansive approach to antitrust enforcement are convinced that expanding the law’s scope of application will improve market efficiency by providing greater latitude for expert regulators and courts to reengineer market structures to the public benefit. Yet any substitution of top-down expert wisdom for the bottom-up trial-and-error process of market competition can easily yield “false positives” in which courts and regulators take actions that counterproductively intervene in markets that are already operating under reasonably competitive conditions. Additionally, an overly expansive approach toward the scope of antitrust law will induce private firms to shift resources toward securing advantages over competitors through lobbying and litigation, rather than seeking to win the race to deliver lower-cost and higher-quality products and services. Neither outcome promotes the public’s interest in a competitive marketplace.