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The gist of these arguments is simple. The Amazon / Whole Foods merger would lead to the exclusion of competitors, with Amazon leveraging its swaths of data and pricing below costs. All of this begs a simple question: have these prophecies come to pass?

The problem with antitrust populism is not just that it leads to unfounded predictions regarding the negative effects of a given business practice. It also ignores the significant gains which consumers may reap from these practices. The Amazon / Whole foods offers a case in point.

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Even with these caveats, it’s still worth looking at the recent trends. Whole Foods’s sales since 2015 have been flat, with only low single-digit growth, according to data from Second Measure. This suggests Whole Foods is not yet getting a lift from the relationship. However, the percentage of Whole Foods’ new customers who are Prime Members increased post-merger, from 34 percent in June 2017 to 41 percent in June 2018. This suggests that Amazon’s platform is delivering customers to Whole Foods.

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The negativity that surrounded the deal at its announcement made Whole Foods seem like an innocent player, but it is important to recall that they were hemorrhaging and were looking to exit. Throughout the 2010s, the company lost its market leading edge as others began to offer the same kinds of services and products. Still, the company was able to sell near the top of its value to Amazon because it was able to court so many suitors. Given all of these features, Whole Foods could have been using the exit as a mechanism to appropriate another firm’s rent.

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Brandeis is back, with today’s neo-Brandeisians reflexively opposing virtually all mergers involving large firms. For them, industry concentration has grown to crisis proportions and breaking up big companies should be the animating goal not just of antitrust policy but of U.S. economic policy generally. The key to understanding the neo-Brandeisian opposition to the Whole Foods/Amazon mergers is that it has nothing to do with consumer welfare, and everything to do with a large firm animus. Sabeel Rahman, a Roosevelt Institute scholar, concedes that big firms give us higher productivity, and hence lower prices, but he dismisses the value of that. He writes, “If consumer prices are our only concern, it is hard to see how Amazon, Comcast, and companies such as Uber need regulation.” And this gets to the key point regarding most of the opposition to the merger: it had nothing to do with concerns about monopolistic effects on economic efficiency or consumer prices.  It had everything to do with opposition to big firm for the sole reason that they are big.

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Carl Shapiro, the government’s economics expert opposing the AT&T-Time Warner merger, seems skeptical of much of the antitrust populists’ Amazon rhetoric: “Simply saying that Amazon has grown like a weed, charges very low prices, and has driven many smaller retailers out of business is not sufficient. Where is the consumer harm?”

On its face, there was nothing about the Amazon/Whole Foods merger that should have raised any antitrust concerns. While one year is too soon to fully judge the competitive impacts of the Amazon-Whole Foods merger, nevertheless, it appears that much of the populist antitrust movement’s speculation that the merger would destroy competition and competitors and impoverish workers has failed to materialize.

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Viewed from the long history of the evolution of the grocery store, the Amazon-Whole Foods merger made sense as the start of the next stage of that historical process. The combination of increased wealth that is driving the demand for upscale grocery stores, and the corresponding increase in the value of people’s time that is driving the demand for one-stop shopping and various forms of pick-up and delivery, makes clear the potential benefits of this merger. Amazon was already beginning to make a mark in the sale and delivery of the non-perishables and dry goods that upscale groceries tend to have less of. Acquiring Whole Foods gives it a way to expand that into perishables in a very sensible way. We are only beginning to see the synergies that this combination will produce. Its long-term effect on the structure of the grocery business will be significant and highly beneficial for consumers.

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Announcement

Truth on the Market is pleased to announce its next blog symposium:

Is Amazon’s Appetite Bottomless?

The Whole Foods Merger After One Year

August 28, 2018

One year ago tomorrow the Amazon/Whole Foods merger closed, following its approval by the FTC. The merger was something of a flashpoint in the growing populist antitrust movement, raising some interesting questions — and a host of objections from a number of scholars, advocates, journalists, antitrust experts, and others who voiced a range of possible problematic outcomes.

Under settled antitrust law — evolved over the last century-plus — the merger between Amazon and Whole Foods was largely uncontroversial. But the size and scope of Amazon’s operation and ambition has given some pause. And despite the apparent inapplicability of antitrust law to the array of populist concerns about large tech companies, advocates nonetheless contend that antitrust should be altered to deal with new threats posed by companies like Amazon.  

For something of a primer on the antitrust debate surrounding Amazon, listen to ICLE’s Geoffrey Manne and Open Markets’ Lina Khan on Season 2 Episode 1 of Briefly, a podcast produced by the University of Chicago Law Review.  

Beginning tomorrow, August 28, Truth on the Market and the International Center for Law & Economics will host a blog symposium discussing the impact of the merger.

One year on, we asked antitrust scholars and other experts to consider:

  • What has been the significance of the Amazon/Whole Foods merger?
  • How has the merger affected various markets and the participants within them (e.g., grocery stores, food delivery services, online retailers, workers, grocery suppliers, etc.)?
  • What, if anything, does the merger and its aftermath tell us about current antitrust doctrine and our understanding of platform markets?
  • Has a year of experience borne out any of the objections to the merger?
  • Have the market changes since the merger undermined or reinforced the populist antitrust arguments regarding this or other conduct?

As in the past (see examples of previous TOTM blog symposia here), we’ve lined up an outstanding and diverse group of scholars to discuss these issues.

Participants

The symposium posts will be collected here. We hope you’ll join us!

There are some who view a host of claimed negative social ills allegedly related to the large size of firms like Amazon as an occasion to call for the company’s break up. And, unfortunately, these critics find an unlikely ally in President Trump, whose tweet storms claim that tech platforms are too big and extract unfair rents at the expense of small businesses. But these critics are wrong: Amazon is not a dangerous monopoly, and it certainly should not be broken up.  

Of course, no one really spells out what it means for these companies to be “too big.” Even Barry Lynn, a champion of the neo-Brandeisian antitrust movement, has shied away from specifics. The best that emerges when probing his writings is that he favors something like a return to Joe Bain’s “Structure-Conduct-Performance” paradigm (but even here, the details are fuzzy).

The reality of Amazon’s impact on the market is quite different than that asserted by its critics. Amazon has had decades to fulfill a nefarious scheme to suddenly raise prices and reap the benefits of anticompetive behavior. Yet it keeps putting downward pressure on prices in a way that seems to be commoditizing goods instead of building anticompetitive moats.

Amazon Does Not Anticompetitively Exercise Market Power

Twitter rants aside, more serious attempts to attack Amazon on antitrust grounds argue that it is engaging in pricing that is “predatory.” But “predatory pricing” requires a specific demonstration of factors — which, to date, have not been demonstrated — in order to justify legal action. Absent a showing of these factors, it has long been understood that seemingly “predatory” conduct is unlikely to harm consumers and often actually benefits consumers.

One important requirement that has gone unsatisfied is that a firm engaging in predatory pricing must have market power. Contrary to common characterizations of Amazon as a retail monopolist, its market power is less than it seems. By no means does it control retail in general. Rather, less than half of all online commerce (44%) takes place on its platform (and that number represents only 4% of total US retail commerce). Of that 44 percent, a significant portion is attributable to the merchants who use Amazon as a platform for their own online retail sales. Rather than abusing a monopoly market position to predatorily harm its retail competitors, at worst Amazon has created a retail business model that puts pressure on other firms to offer more convenience and lower prices to their customers. This is what we want and expect of competitive markets.

The claims leveled at Amazon are the intellectual kin of the ones made against Walmart during its ascendancy that it was destroying main street throughout the nation. In 1993, it was feared that Walmart’s quest to vertically integrate its offerings through Sam’s Club warehouse operations meant that “[r]etailers could simply bypass their distributors in favor of Sam’s — and Sam’s could take revenues from local merchants on two levels: as a supplier at the wholesale level, and as a competitor at retail.” This is a strikingly similar accusation to those leveled against Amazon’s use of its Seller Marketplace to aggregate smaller retailers on its platform.

But, just as in 1993 with Walmart, and now with Amazon, the basic fact remains that consumer preferences shift. Firms need to alter their behavior to satisfy their customers, not pretend they can change consumer preferences to suit their own needs. Preferring small, local retailers to Amazon or Walmart is a decision for individual consumers interacting in their communities, not for federal officials figuring out how best to pattern the economy.

All of this is not to say that Amazon is not large, or important, or that, as a consequence of its success it does not exert influence over the markets it operates in. But having influence through success is not the same as anticompetitively asserting market power.

Other criticisms of Amazon focus on its conduct in specific vertical markets in which it does have more significant market share. For instance, a UK Liberal Democratic leader recently claimed that “[j]ust as Standard Oil once cornered 85% of the refined oil market, today… Amazon accounts for 75% of ebook sales … .”

The problem with this concern is that Amazon’s conduct in the ebook market has had, on net, pro-competitive, not anti-competitive, effects. Amazon’s behavior in the ebook market has actually increased demand for books overall (and expanded output), increased the amount that consumers read, and decreased the price of theses books. Amazon is now even opening physical bookstores. Lina Khan made much hay in her widely cited article last year that this was all part of a grand strategy to predatorily push competitors out of the market:

The fact that Amazon has been willing to forego profits for growth undercuts a central premise of contemporary predatory pricing doctrine, which assumes that predation is irrational precisely because firms prioritize profits over growth. In this way, Amazon’s strategy has enabled it to use predatory pricing tactics without triggering the scrutiny of predatory pricing laws.

But it’s hard to allege predation in a market when over the past twenty years Amazon has consistently expanded output and lowered overall prices in the book market. Courts and lawmakers have sought to craft laws that encourage firms to provide consumers with more choices at lower prices — a feat that Amazon repeatedly accomplishes. To describe this conduct as anticompetitive is asking for a legal requirement that is at odds with the goal of benefiting consumers. It is to claim that Amazon has a contradictory duty to both benefit consumers and its shareholders, while also making sure that all of its less successful competitors also stay in business.

But far from creating a monopoly, the empirical reality appears to be that Amazon is driving categories of goods, like books, closer to the textbook model of commodities in a perfectly competitive market. Hardly an antitrust violation.

Amazon Should Not Be Broken Up

“Big is bad” may roll off the tongue, but, as a guiding ethic, it makes for terrible public policy. Amazon’s size and success are a direct result of its ability to enter relevant markets and to innovate. To break up Amazon, or any other large firm, is to punish it for serving the needs of its consumers.

None of this is to say that large firms are incapable of causing harm or acting anticompetitively. But we should accept calls for dramatic regulatory intervention  — especially from those in a position to influence regulatory or market reactions to such calls — to be supported by substantial factual evidence and legal and economic theory.

This tendency to go after large players is nothing new. As noted above, Walmart triggered many similar concerns thirty years ago. Thinking about Walmart then, pundits feared that direct competition with Walmart was fruitless:

In the spring of 1992 Ken Stone came to Maine to address merchant groups from towns in the path of the Wal-Mart advance. His advice was simple and direct: don’t compete directly with Wal-Mart; specialize and carry harder-to-get and better-quality products; emphasize customer service; extend your hours; advertise more — not just your products but your business — and perhaps most pertinent of all to this group of Yankee individualists, work together.

And today, some think it would be similarly pointless to compete with Amazon:

Concentration means it is much harder for someone to start a new business that might, for example, try to take advantage of the cheap housing in Minneapolis. Why bother when you know that if you challenge Amazon, they will simply dump your product below cost and drive you out of business?

The interesting thing to note, of course, is that Walmart is now desperately trying to compete with Amazon. But despite being very successful in its own right, and having strong revenues, Walmart doesn’t seem able to keep up.

Some small businesses will close as new business models emerge and consumer preferences shift. This is to be expected in a market driven by creative destruction. Once upon a time Walmart changed retail and improved the lives of many Americans. If our lawmakers can resist the urge to intervene without real evidence of harm, Amazon just might do the same.

Last week the editorial board of the Washington Post penned an excellent editorial responding to the European Commission’s announcement of its decision in its Google Shopping investigation. Here’s the key language from the editorial:

Whether the demise of any of [the complaining comparison shopping sites] is specifically traceable to Google, however, is not so clear. Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies. Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites…. Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated…. Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.

That’s actually a pretty thorough, if succinct, summary of the basic problems with the Commission’s case (based on its PR and Factsheet, at least; it hasn’t released the full decision yet).

I’ll have more to say on the decision in due course, but for now I want to elaborate on two of the points raised by the WaPo editorial board, both in service of its crucial rejoinder to the Commission that “Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies.”

First, the WaPo editorial board points out that:

Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites.

It is undoubtedly true that users “may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first.” It’s also crucial to understanding the changes in Google’s search results page that have given rise to the current raft of complaints.

As I noted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed two years ago:

It’s a mistake to consider “general search” and “comparison shopping” or “product search” to be distinct markets.

From the moment it was technologically feasible to do so, Google has been adapting its traditional search results—that familiar but long since vanished page of 10 blue links—to offer more specialized answers to users’ queries. Product search, which is what is at issue in the EU complaint, is the next iteration in this trend.

Internet users today seek information from myriad sources: Informational sites (Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database); review sites (Yelp and TripAdvisor); retail sites (Amazon and eBay); and social-media sites (Facebook and Twitter). What do these sites have in common? They prioritize certain types of data over others to improve the relevance of the information they provide.

“Prioritization” of Google’s own shopping results, however, is the core problem for the Commission:

Google has systematically given prominent placement to its own comparison shopping service: when a consumer enters a query into the Google search engine in relation to which Google’s comparison shopping service wants to show results, these are displayed at or near the top of the search results. (Emphasis in original).

But this sort of prioritization is the norm for all search, social media, e-commerce and similar platforms. And this shouldn’t be a surprise: The value of these platforms to the user is dependent upon their ability to sort the wheat from the chaff of the now immense amount of information coursing about the Web.

As my colleagues and I noted in a paper responding to a methodologically questionable report by Tim Wu and Yelp leveling analogous “search bias” charges in the context of local search results:

Google is a vertically integrated company that offers general search, but also a host of other products…. With its well-developed algorithm and wide range of products, it is hardly surprising that Google can provide not only direct answers to factual questions, but also a wide range of its own products and services that meet users’ needs. If consumers choose Google not randomly, but precisely because they seek to take advantage of the direct answers and other options that Google can provide, then removing the sort of “bias” alleged by [complainants] would affirmatively hurt, not help, these users. (Emphasis added).

And as Josh Wright noted in an earlier paper responding to yet another set of such “search bias” charges (in that case leveled in a similarly methodologically questionable report by Benjamin Edelman and Benjamin Lockwood):

[I]t is critical to recognize that bias alone is not evidence of competitive harm and it must be evaluated in the appropriate antitrust economic context of competition and consumers, rather individual competitors and websites. Edelman & Lockwood´s analysis provides a useful starting point for describing how search engines differ in their referrals to their own content. However, it is not useful from an antitrust policy perspective because it erroneously—and contrary to economic theory and evidence—presumes natural and procompetitive product differentiation in search rankings to be inherently harmful. (Emphasis added).

We’ll have to see what kind of analysis the Commission relies upon in its decision to reach its conclusion that prioritization is an antitrust problem, but there is reason to be skeptical that it will turn out to be compelling. The Commission states in its PR that:

The evidence shows that consumers click far more often on results that are more visible, i.e. the results appearing higher up in Google’s search results. Even on a desktop, the ten highest-ranking generic search results on page 1 together generally receive approximately 95% of all clicks on generic search results (with the top result receiving about 35% of all the clicks). The first result on page 2 of Google’s generic search results receives only about 1% of all clicks. This cannot just be explained by the fact that the first result is more relevant, because evidence also shows that moving the first result to the third rank leads to a reduction in the number of clicks by about 50%. The effects on mobile devices are even more pronounced given the much smaller screen size.

This means that by giving prominent placement only to its own comparison shopping service and by demoting competitors, Google has given its own comparison shopping service a significant advantage compared to rivals. (Emphasis added).

Whatever truth there is in the characterization that placement is more important than relevance in influencing user behavior, the evidence cited by the Commission to demonstrate that doesn’t seem applicable to what’s happening on Google’s search results page now.

Most crucially, the evidence offered by the Commission refers only to how placement affects clicks on “generic search results” and glosses over the fact that the “prominent placement” of Google’s “results” is not only a difference in position but also in the type of result offered.

Google Shopping results (like many of its other “vertical results” and direct answers) are very different than the 10 blue links of old. These “universal search” results are, for one thing, actual answers rather than merely links to other sites. They are also more visually rich and attractively and clearly displayed.

Ironically, Tim Wu and Yelp use the claim that users click less often on Google’s universal search results to support their contention that increased relevance doesn’t explain Google’s prioritization of its own content. Yet, as we note in our response to their study:

[I]f a consumer is using a search engine in order to find a direct answer to a query rather than a link to another site to answer it, click-through would actually represent a decrease in consumer welfare, not an increase.

In fact, the study fails to incorporate this dynamic even though it is precisely what the authors claim the study is measuring.

Further, as the WaPo editorial intimates, these universal search results (including Google Shopping results) are quite plausibly more valuable to users. As even Tim Wu and Yelp note:

No one truly disagrees that universal search, in concept, can be an important innovation that can serve consumers.

Google sees it exactly this way, of course. Here’s Tim Wu and Yelp again:

According to Google, a principal difference between the earlier cases and its current conduct is that universal search represents a pro-competitive, user-serving innovation. By deploying universal search, Google argues, it has made search better. As Eric Schmidt argues, “if we know the answer it is better for us to answer that question so [the user] doesn’t have to click anywhere, and in that sense we… use data sources that are our own because we can’t engineer it any other way.”

Of course, in this case, one would expect fewer clicks to correlate with higher value to users — precisely the opposite of the claim made by Tim Wu and Yelp, which is the surest sign that their study is faulty.

But the Commission, at least according to the evidence cited in its PR, doesn’t even seem to measure the relative value of the very different presentations of information at all, instead resting on assertions rooted in the irrelevant difference in user propensity to click on generic (10 blue links) search results depending on placement.

Add to this Pinar Akman’s important point that Google Shopping “results” aren’t necessarily search results at all, but paid advertising:

[O]nce one appreciates the fact that Google’s shopping results are simply ads for products and Google treats all ads with the same ad-relevant algorithm and all organic results with the same organic-relevant algorithm, the Commission’s order becomes impossible to comprehend. Is the Commission imposing on Google a duty to treat non-sponsored results in the same way that it treats sponsored results? If so, does this not provide an unfair advantage to comparison shopping sites over, for example, Google’s advertising partners as well as over Amazon, eBay, various retailers, etc…?

Randy Picker also picks up on this point:

But those Google shopping boxes are ads, Picker told me. “I can’t imagine what they’re thinking,” he said. “Google is in the advertising business. That’s how it makes its money. It has no obligation to put other people’s ads on its website.”

The bottom line here is that the WaPo editorial board does a better job characterizing the actual, relevant market dynamics in a single sentence than the Commission seems to have done in its lengthy releases summarizing its decision following seven full years of investigation.

The second point made by the WaPo editorial board to which I want to draw attention is equally important:

Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated…. Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.

The Commission dismisses this argument in its Factsheet:

The Commission Decision concerns the effect of Google’s practices on comparison shopping markets. These offer a different service to merchant platforms, such as Amazon and eBay. Comparison shopping services offer a tool for consumers to compare products and prices online and find deals from online retailers of all types. By contrast, they do not offer the possibility for products to be bought on their site, which is precisely the aim of merchant platforms. Google’s own commercial behaviour reflects these differences – merchant platforms are eligible to appear in Google Shopping whereas rival comparison shopping services are not.

But the reality is that “comparison shopping,” just like “general search,” is just one technology among many for serving information and ads to consumers online. Defining the relevant market or limiting the definition of competition in terms of the particular mechanism that Google (or Foundem, or Amazon, or Facebook…) happens to use doesn’t reflect the extent of substitutability between these different mechanisms.

Properly defined, the market in which Google competes online is not search, but something more like online “matchmaking” between advertisers, retailers and consumers. And this market is enormously competitive. The same goes for comparison shopping.

And the fact that Amazon and eBay “offer the possibility for products to be bought on their site” doesn’t take away from the fact that they also “offer a tool for consumers to compare products and prices online and find deals from online retailers of all types.” Not only do these sites contain enormous amounts of valuable (and well-presented) information about products, including product comparisons and consumer reviews, but they also actually offer comparisons among retailers. In fact, Fifty percent of the items sold through Amazon’s platform, for example, are sold by third-party retailers — the same sort of retailers that might also show up on a comparison shopping site.

More importantly, though, as the WaPo editorial rightly notes, “[t]hose who aren’t happy anyway have other options.” Google just isn’t the indispensable gateway to the Internet (and definitely not to shopping on the Internet) that the Commission seems to think.

Today over half of product searches in the US start on Amazon. The majority of web page referrals come from Facebook. Yelp’s most engaged users now access it via its app (which has seen more than 3x growth in the past five years). And a staggering 40 percent of mobile browsing on both Android and iOS now takes place inside the Facebook app.

Then there are “closed” platforms like the iTunes store and innumerable other apps that handle copious search traffic (including shopping-related traffic) but also don’t figure in the Commission’s analysis, apparently.

In fact, billions of users reach millions of companies every day through direct browser navigation, social media, apps, email links, review sites, blogs, and countless other means — all without once touching Google.com. So-called “dark social” interactions (email, text messages, and IMs) drive huge amounts of some of the most valuable traffic on the Internet, in fact.

All of this, in turn, has led to a competitive scramble to roll out completely new technologies to meet consumers’ informational (and merchants’ advertising) needs. The already-arriving swarm of VR, chatbots, digital assistants, smart-home devices, and more will offer even more interfaces besides Google through which consumers can reach their favorite online destinations.

The point is this: Google’s competitors complaining that the world is evolving around them don’t need to rely on Google. That they may choose to do so does not saddle Google with an obligation to ensure that they can always do so.

Antitrust laws — in Europe, no less than in the US — don’t require Google or any other firm to make life easier for competitors. That’s especially true when doing so would come at the cost of consumer-welfare-enhancing innovations. The Commission doesn’t seem to have grasped this fundamental point, however.

The WaPo editorial board gets it, though:

The immense size and power of all Internet giants are a legitimate focus for the antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Brussels vs. Google, however, seems to be a case of punishment without crime.

What does it mean to “own” something? A simple question (with a complicated answer, of course) that, astonishingly, goes unasked in a recent article in the Pennsylvania Law Review entitled, What We Buy When We “Buy Now,” by Aaron Perzanowski and Chris Hoofnagle (hereafter “P&H”). But how can we reasonably answer the question they pose without first trying to understand the nature of property interests?

P&H set forth a simplistic thesis for their piece: when an e-commerce site uses the term “buy” to indicate the purchase of digital media (instead of the term “license”), it deceives consumers. This is so, the authors assert, because the common usage of the term “buy” indicates that there will be some conveyance of property that necessarily includes absolute rights such as alienability, descendibility, and excludability, and digital content doesn’t generally come with these attributes. The authors seek to establish this deception through a poorly constructed survey regarding consumers’ understanding of the parameters of their property interests in digitally acquired copies. (The survey’s considerable limitations is a topic for another day….)

The issue is more than merely academic: NTIA and the USPTO have just announced that they will hold a public meeting

to discuss how best to communicate to consumers regarding license terms and restrictions in connection with online transactions involving copyrighted works… [as a precursor to] the creation of a multistakeholder process to establish best practices to improve consumers’ understanding of license terms and restrictions in connection with online transactions involving creative works.

Whatever the results of that process, it should not begin, or end, with P&H’s problematic approach.

Getting to their conclusion that platforms are engaged in deceptive practices requires two leaps of faith: First, that property interests are absolute and that any restraint on the use of “property” is inconsistent with the notion of ownership; and second, that consumers’ stated expectations (even assuming that they were measured correctly) alone determine the appropriate contours of legal (and economic) property interests. Both leaps are meritless.

Property and ownership are not absolute concepts

P&H are in such a rush to condemn downstream restrictions on the alienability of digital copies that they fail to recognize that “property” and “ownership” are not absolute terms, and are capable of being properly understood only contextually. Our very notions of what objects may be capable of ownership change over time, along with the scope of authority over owned objects. For P&H, the fact that there are restrictions on the use of an object means that it is not properly “owned.” But that overlooks our everyday understanding of the nature of property.

Ownership is far more complex than P&H allow, and ownership limited by certain constraints is still ownership. As Armen Alchian and Harold Demsetz note in The Property Right Paradigm (1973):

In common speech, we frequently speak of someone owning this land, that house, or these bonds. This conversational style undoubtedly is economical from the viewpoint of quick communication, but it masks the variety and complexity of the ownership relationship. What is owned are rights to use resources, including one’s body and mind, and these rights are always circumscribed, often by the prohibition of certain actions. To “own land” usually means to have the right to till (or not to till) the soil, to mine the soil, to offer those rights for sale, etc., but not to have the right to throw soil at a passerby, to use it to change the course of a stream, or to force someone to buy it. What are owned are socially recognized rights of action. (Emphasis added).

Literally, everything we own comes with a range of limitations on our use rights. Literally. Everything. So starting from a position that limitations on use mean something is not, in fact, owned, is absurd.

Moreover, in defining what we buy when we buy digital goods by reference to analog goods, P&H are comparing apples and oranges, without acknowledging that both apples and oranges are bought.

There has been a fair amount of discussion about the nature of digital content transactions (including by the USPTO and NTIA), and whether they are analogous to traditional sales of objects or more properly characterized as licenses. But this is largely a distinction without a difference, and the nature of the transaction is unnecessary in understanding that P&H’s assertion of deception is unwarranted.

Quite simply, we are accustomed to buying licenses as well as products. Whenever we buy a ticket — e.g., an airline ticket or a ticket to the movies — we are buying the right to use something or gain some temporary privilege. These transactions are governed by the terms of the license. But we certainly buy tickets, no? Alchian and Demsetz again:

The domain of demarcated uses of a resource can be partitioned among several people. More than one party can claim some ownership interest in the same resource. One party may own the right to till the land, while another, perhaps the state, may own an easement to traverse or otherwise use the land for specific purposes. It is not the resource itself which is owned; it is a bundle, or a portion, of rights to use a resource that is owned. In its original meaning, property referred solely to a right, title, or interest, and resources could not be identified as property any more than they could be identified as right, title, or interest. (Emphasis added).

P&H essentially assert that restrictions on the use of property are so inconsistent with the notion of property that it would be deceptive to describe the acquisition transaction as a purchase. But such a claim completely overlooks the fact that there are restrictions on any use of property in general, and on ownership of copies of copyright-protected materials in particular.

Take analog copies of copyright-protected works. While the lawful owner of a copy is able to lend that copy to a friend, sell it, or even use it as a hammer or paperweight, he or she can not offer it for rental (for certain kinds of works), cannot reproduce it, may not publicly perform or broadcast it, and may not use it to bludgeon a neighbor. In short, there are all kinds of restrictions on the use of said object — yet P&H have little problem with defining the relationship of person to object as “ownership.”

Consumers’ understanding of all the terms of exchange is a poor metric for determining the nature of property interests

P&H make much of the assertion that most users don’t “know” the precise terms that govern the allocation of rights in digital copies; this is the source of the “deception” they assert. But there is a cost to marking out the precise terms of use with perfect specificity (no contract specifies every eventuality), a cost to knowing the terms perfectly, and a cost to caring about them.

When we buy digital goods, we probably care a great deal about a few terms. For a digital music file, for example, we care first and foremost about whether it will play on our device(s). Other terms are of diminishing importance. Users certainly care whether they can play a song when offline, for example, but whether their children will be able to play it after they die? Not so much. That eventuality may, in fact, be specified in the license, but the nature of this particular ownership relationship includes a degree of rational ignorance on the users’ part: The typical consumer simply doesn’t care. In other words, she is, in Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon’s term, “boundedly rational.” That isn’t deception; it’s a feature of life without which we would be overwhelmed by “information overload” and unable to operate. We have every incentive and ability to know the terms we care most about, and to ignore the ones about which we care little.

Relatedly, P&H also fail to understand the relationship between price and ownership. A digital song that is purchased from Amazon for $.99 comes with a set of potentially valuable attributes. For example:

  • It may be purchased on its own, without the other contents of an album;
  • It never degrades in quality, and it’s extremely difficult to misplace;
  • It may be purchased from one’s living room and be instantaneously available;
  • It can be easily copied or transferred onto multiple devices; and
  • It can be stored in Amazon’s cloud without taking up any of the consumer’s physical memory resources.

In many ways that matter to consumers, digital copies are superior to analog or physical ones. And yet, compared to physical media, on a per-song basis (assuming one could even purchase a physical copy of a single song without purchasing an entire album), $.99 may represent a considerable discount. Moreover, in 1982 when CDs were first released, they cost an average of $15. In 2017 dollars, that would be $38. Yet today most digital album downloads can be found for $10 or less.

Of course, songs purchased on CD or vinyl offer other benefits that a digital copy can’t provide. But the main thing — the ability to listen to the music — is approximately equal, and yet the digital copy offers greater convenience at (often) lower price. It is impossible to conclude that a consumer is duped by such a purchase, even if it doesn’t come with the ability to resell the song.

In fact, given the price-to-value ratio, it is perhaps reasonable to think that consumers know full well (or at least suspect) that there might be some corresponding limitations on use — the inability to resell, for example — that would explain the discount. For some people, those limitations might matter, and those people, presumably, figure out whether such limitations are present before buying a digital album or song For everyone else, however, the ability to buy a digital song for $.99 — including all of the benefits of digital ownership, but minus the ability to resell — is a good deal, just as it is worth it to a home buyer to purchase a house, regardless of whether it is subject to various easements.

Consumers are, in fact, familiar with “buying” property with all sorts of restrictions

The inability to resell digital goods looms inordinately large for P&H: According to them, by virtue of the fact that digital copies may not be resold, “ownership” is no longer an appropriate characterization of the relationship between the consumer and her digital copy. P&H believe that digital copies of works are sufficiently similar to analog versions, that traditional doctrines of exhaustion (which would permit a lawful owner of a copy of a work to dispose of that copy as he or she deems appropriate) should apply equally to digital copies, and thus that the inability to alienate the copy as the consumer wants means that there is no ownership interest per se.

But, as discussed above, even ownership of a physical copy doesn’t convey to the purchaser the right to make or allow any use of that copy. So why should we treat the ability to alienate a copy as the determining factor in whether it is appropriate to refer to the acquisition as a purchase? P&H arrive at this conclusion only through the illogical assertion that

Consumers operate in the marketplace based on their prior experience. We suggest that consumers’ “default” behavior is based on the experiences of buying physical media, and the assumptions from that context have carried over into the digital domain.

P&H want us to believe that consumers can’t distinguish between the physical and virtual worlds, and that their ability to use media doesn’t differentiate between these realms. But consumers do understand (to the extent that they care) that they are buying a different product, with different attributes. Does anyone try to play a vinyl record on his or her phone? There are perceived advantages and disadvantages to different kinds of media purchases. The ability to resell is only one of these — and for many (most?) consumers not likely the most important.

And, furthermore, the notion that consumers better understood their rights — and the limitations on ownership — in the physical world and that they carried these well-informed expectations into the digital realm is fantasy. Are we to believe that the consumers of yore understood that when they bought a physical record they could sell it, but not rent it out? That if they played that record in a public place they would need to pay performance royalties to the songwriter and publisher? Not likely.

Simply put, there is a wide variety of goods and services that we clearly buy, but that have all kinds of attributes that do not fit P&H’s crabbed definition of ownership. For example:

  • We buy tickets to events and membership in clubs (which, depending upon club rules, may not be alienated, and which always lapse for non-payment).
  • We buy houses notwithstanding the fact that in most cases all we own is the right to inhabit the premises for as long as we pay the bank (which actually retains more of the incidents of “ownership”).
  • In fact, we buy real property encumbered by a series of restrictive covenants: Depending upon where we live, we may not be able to build above a certain height, we may not paint the house certain colors, we may not be able to leave certain objects in the driveway, and we may not be able to resell without approval of a board.

We may or may not know (or care) about all of the restrictions on our use of such property. But surely we may accurately say that we bought the property and that we “own” it, nonetheless.

The reality is that we are comfortable with the notion of buying any number of limited property interests — including the purchasing of a license — regardless of the contours of the purchase agreement. The fact that some ownership interests may properly be understood as licenses rather than as some form of exclusive and permanent dominion doesn’t suggest that a consumer is not involved in a transaction properly characterized as a sale, or that a consumer is somehow deceived when the transaction is characterized as a sale — and P&H are surely aware of this.

Conclusion: The real issue for P&H is “digital first sale,” not deception

At root, P&H are not truly concerned about consumer deception; they are concerned about what they view as unreasonable constraints on the “rights” of consumers imposed by copyright law in the digital realm. Resale looms so large in their analysis not because consumers care about it (or are deceived about it), but because the real object of their enmity is the lack of a “digital first sale doctrine” that exactly mirrors the law regarding physical goods.

But Congress has already determined that there are sufficient distinctions between ownership of digital copies and ownership of analog ones to justify treating them differently, notwithstanding ownership of the particular copy. And for good reason: Trade in “used” digital copies is not a secondary market. Such copies are identical to those traded in the primary market and would compete directly with “pristine” digital copies. It makes perfect sense to treat ownership differently in these cases — and still to say that both digital and analog copies are “bought” and “owned.”

P&H’s deep-seated opposition to current law colors and infects their analysis — and, arguably, their failure to be upfront about it is the real deception. When one starts an analysis with an already-identified conclusion, the path from hypothesis to result is unlikely to withstand scrutiny, and that is certainly the case here.