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The business press generally describes the gig economy that has sprung up around digital platforms like Uber and TaskRabbit as a beneficial phenomenon, “a glass that is almost full.” The gig economy “is an economy that operates flexibly, involving the exchange of labor and resources through digital platforms that actively facilitate buyer and seller matching.”

From the perspective of businesses, major positive attributes of the gig economy include cost-effectiveness (minimizing costs and expenses); labor-force efficiencies (“directly matching the company to the freelancer”); and flexible output production (individualized work schedules and enhanced employee motivation). Workers also benefit through greater independence, enhanced work flexibility (including hours worked), and the ability to earn extra income.

While there are some disadvantages, as well, (worker-commitment questions, business-ethics issues, lack of worker benefits, limited coverage of personal expenses, and worker isolation), there is no question that the gig economy has contributed substantially to the growth and flexibility of the American economy—a major social good. Indeed, “[i]t is undeniable that the gig economy has become an integral part of the American workforce, a trend that has only been accelerated during the” COVID-19 pandemic.

In marked contrast, however, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Sept. 15 Policy Statement on Enforcement Related to Gig Work (“gig statement” or “statement”) is the story of a glass that is almost empty. The accompanying press release declaring “FTC to Crack Down on Companies Taking Advantage of Gig Workers” (since when is “taking advantage of workers” an antitrust or consumer-protection offense?) puts an entirely negative spin on the gig economy. And while the gig statement begins by describing the nature and large size of the gig economy, it does so in a dispassionate and bland tone. No mention is made of the substantial benefits for consumers, workers, and the overall economy stemming from gig work. Rather, the gig statement quickly adopts a critical perspective in describing the market for gig workers and then addressing gig-related FTC-enforcement priorities. What’s more, the statement deals in very broad generalities and eschews specifics, rendering it of no real use to gig businesses seeking practical guidance.

Most significantly, the gig statement suggests that the FTC should play a significant enforcement role in gig-industry labor questions that fall outside its statutory authority. As such, the statement is fatally flawed as a policy document. It provides no true guidance and should be substantially rewritten or withdrawn.

Gig Statement Analysis

The gig statement’s substantive analysis begins with a negative assessment of gig-firm conduct. It expresses concern that gig workers are being misclassified as independent contractors and are thus deprived “of critical rights [right to organize, overtime pay, health and safety protections] to which they are entitled under law.” Relatedly, gig workers are said to be “saddled with inordinate risks.” Gig firms also “may use transparent algorithms to capture more revenue from customer payments for workers’ services than customers or workers understand.”

Heaven forfend!

The solution offered by the gig statement is “scrutiny of promises gig platforms make, or information they fail to disclose, about the financial proposition of gig work.” No mention is made of how these promises supposedly made to workers about the financial ramifications of gig employment are related to the FTC’s statutory mission (which centers on unfair or deceptive acts or practices affecting consumers or unfair methods of competition).

The gig statement next complains that a “power imbalance” between gig companies and gig workers “may leave gig workers exposed to harms from unfair, deceptive, and anticompetitive practices and is likely to amplify such harms when they occur. “Power imbalance” along a vertical chain has not been a source of serious antitrust concern for decades (and even in the case of the Robinson-Patman Act, the U.S. Supreme Court most recently stressed, in 2005’s Volvo v. Reeder, that harm to interbrand competition is the key concern). “Power imbalances” between workers and employers bear no necessary relation to consumer welfare promotion, which the Supreme Court teaches is the raison d’etre of antitrust. Moreover, the FTC does not explain why unfair or deceptive conduct likely follows from the mere existence of substantial bargaining power. Such an unsupported assertion is not worthy of being included in a serious agency-policy document.

The gig statement then engages in more idle speculation about a supposed relationship between market concentration and the proliferation of unfair and deceptive practices across the gig economy. The statement claims, without any substantiation, that gig companies in concentrated platform markets will be incentivized to exert anticompetitive market power over gig workers, and thereby “suppress wages below competitive rates, reduce job quality, or impose onerous terms on gig workers.” Relatedly, “unfair and deceptive practices by one platform can proliferate across the labor market, creating a race to the bottom that participants in the gig economy, and especially gig workers, have little ability to avoid.” No empirical or theoretical support is advanced for any of these bald assertions, which give the strong impression that the commission plans to target gig-economy companies for enforcement actions without regard to the actual facts on the ground. (By contrast, the commission has in the past developed detailed factual records of competitive and/or consumer-protection problems in health care and other important industry sectors as a prelude to possible future investigations.)

The statement then launches into a description of the FTC’s gig-economy policy priorities. It notes first that “workers may be deprived of the protections of an employment relationship” when gig firms classify them as independent contractors, leading to firms’ “disclosing [of] pay and costs in an unfair and deceptive manner.” What’s more, the FTC “also recognizes that misleading claims [made to workers] about the costs and benefits of gig work can impair fair competition among companies in the gig economy and elsewhere.”

These extraordinary statements seem to be saying that the FTC plans to closely scrutinize gig-economy-labor contract negotiations, based on its distaste for independent contracting (which it believes should be supplanted by employer-employee relationships, a question of labor law, not FTC law). Nowhere is it explained where such a novel FTC exercise of authority comes from, nor how such FTC actions have any bearing on harms to consumer welfare. The FTC’s apparent desire to force employment relationships upon gig firms is far removed from harm to competition or unfair or deceptive practices directed at consumers. Without more of an explanation, one is left to conclude that the FTC is proposing to take actions that are far beyond its statutory remit.

The gig statement next tries to tie the FTC’s new gig program to violations of the FTC Act (“unsubstantiated claims”); the FTC’s Franchise Rule; and the FTC’s Business Opportunity Rule, violations of which “can trigger civil penalties.” The statement, however, lacks any sort of logical, coherent explanation of how the new enforcement program necessarily follows from these other sources of authority. While a few examples of rules-based enforcement actions that have some connection to certain terms of employment may be pointed to, such special cases are a far cry from any sort of general justification for turning the FTC into a labor-contracts regulator.

The statement then moves on to the alleged misuse of algorithmic tools dealing with gig-worker contracts and supervision that may lead to unlawful gig-worker oversight and termination. Once again, the connection of any of this to consumer-welfare harm (from a competition or consumer-protection perspective) is not made.

The statement further asserts that FTC Act consumer-protection violations may arise from “nonnegotiable” and other unfair contracts. In support of such a novel exercise of authority, however, the FTC cites supposedly analogous “unfair” clauses found in consumer contracts with individuals or small-business consumers. It is highly doubtful that these precedents support any FTC enforcement actions involving labor contracts.

Noncompete clauses with individuals are next on the gig statement’s agenda. It is claimed that “[n]on-compete provisions may undermine free and fair labor markets by restricting workers’ ability to obtain competitive offers for their services from existing companies, resulting in lower wages and degraded working conditions. These provisions may also raise barriers to entry for new companies.” The assertion, however, that such clauses may violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act or Section 5 of the FTC Act’s bar on unfair methods of competition, seems dubious, to say the least. Unless there is coordination among companies, these are essentially unilateral contracting practices that may have robust efficiency explanations. Making out these practices to be federal antitrust violations is bad law and bad policy; they are, in any event, subject to a wide variety of state laws.

Even more problematic is the FTC’s claim that a variety of standard (typically efficiency-seeking) contract limitations, such as nondisclosure agreements and liquidated damages clauses, “may be excessive or overbroad” and subject to FTC scrutiny. This preposterous assertion would make the FTC into a second-guesser of common labor contracts (a federal labor-contract regulator, if you will), a role for which it lacks authority and is entirely unsuited. Turning the FTC into a federal labor-contract regulator would impose unjustifiable uncertainty costs on business and chill a host of efficient arrangements. It is hard to take such a claim of power seriously, given its lack of any credible statutory basis.

The final section of the gig statement dealing with FTC enforcement (“Policing Unfair Methods of Competition That Harm Gig Workers”) is unobjectionable, but not particularly informative. It essentially states that the FTC’s black letter legal authority over anticompetitive conduct also extends to gig companies: the FTC has the authority to investigate and prosecute anticompetitive mergers; agreements among competitors to fix terms of employment; no-poach agreements; and acts of monopolization and attempted monopolization. (Tell us something we did not know!)

The fact that gig-company workers may be harmed by such arrangements is noted. The mere page and a half devoted to this legal summary, however, provides little practical guidance for gig companies as to how to avoid running afoul of the law. Antitrust policy statements may be excused if they provided less detailed guidance than antitrust guidelines, but it would be helpful if they did something more than provide a capsule summary of general American antitrust principles. The gig statement does not pass this simple test.

The gig statement closes with a few glittering generalities. Cooperation with other agencies is highlighted (for example, an information-sharing agreement with the National Labor Relations Board is described). The FTC describes an “Equity Action Plan” calling for a focus on how gig-economy antitrust and consumer-protection abuses harm underserved communities and low-wage workers.

The FTC finishes with a request for input from the public and from gig workers about abusive and potentially illegal gig-sector conduct. No mention is made of the fact that the FTC must, of course, conform itself to the statutory limitations on its jurisdiction in the gig sector, as in all other areas of the economy.

Summing Up the Gig Statement

In sum, the critical flaw of the FTC’s gig statement is its focus on questions of labor law and policy (including the question of independent contractor as opposed to employee status) that are the proper purview of federal and state statutory schemes not administered by the Federal Trade Commission. (A secondary flaw is the statement’s unbalanced portrayal of the gig sector, which ignores its beneficial aspects.) If the FTC decides that gig-economy issues deserve particular enforcement emphasis, it should (and, indeed, must) direct its attention to anticompetitive actions and unfair or deceptive acts or practices that harm consumers.

On the antitrust side, that might include collusion among gig companies on the terms offered to workers or perhaps “mergers to monopoly” between gig companies offering a particular service. On the consumer-protection side, that might include making false or materially misleading statements to consumers about the terms under which they purchase gig-provided services. (It would be conceivable, of course, that some of those statements might be made, unwittingly or not, by gig independent contractors, at the behest of the gig companies.)

The FTC also might carry out gig-industry studies to identify particular prevalent competitive or consumer-protection harms. The FTC should not, however, seek to transform itself into a gig-labor-market enforcer and regulator, in defiance of its lack of statutory authority to play this role.

Conclusion

The FTC does, of course, have a legitimate role to play in challenging unfair methods of competition and unfair acts or practices that undermine consumer welfare wherever they arise, including in the gig economy. But it does a disservice by focusing merely on supposed negative aspects of the gig economy and conjuring up a gig-specific “parade of horribles” worthy of close commission scrutiny and enforcement action.

Many of the “horribles” cited may not even be “bads,” and many of them are, in any event, beyond the proper legal scope of FTC inquiry. There are other federal agencies (for example, the National Labor Relations Board) whose statutes may prove applicable to certain problems noted in the gig statement. In other cases, statutory changes may be required to address certain problems noted in the statement (assuming they actually are problems). The FTC, and its fellow enforcement agencies, should keep in mind, of course, that they are not Congress, and wishing for legal authority to deal with problems does not create it (something the federal judiciary fully understands).  

In short, the negative atmospherics that permeate the gig statement are unnecessary and counterproductive; if anything, they are likely to convince at least some judges that the FTC is not the dispassionate finder of fact and enforcer of law that it claims to be. In particular, the judiciary is unlikely to be impressed by the FTC’s apparent effort to insert itself into questions that lie far beyond its statutory mandate.

The FTC should withdraw the gig statement. If, however, it does not, it should revise the statement in a manner that is respectful of the limits on the commission’s legal authority, and that presents a more dispassionate analysis of gig-economy business conduct.

For decades, consumer-welfare enhancement appeared to be a key enforcement goal of competition policy (antitrust, in the U.S. usage) in most jurisdictions:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court famously proclaimed American antitrust law to be a “consumer welfare prescription” in Reiter v. Sonotone Corp. (1979).
  • A study by the current adviser to the European Competition Commission’s chief economist found that that there are “many statements indicating that, seen from the European Commission, modern EU competition policy to a large extent is about protecting consumer welfare.”
  • A comprehensive international survey presented at the 2011 Annual International Competition Network Conference, found that a majority of competition authorities state that “their national [competition] legislation refers either directly or indirectly to consumer welfare,” and that most competition authorities “base their enforcement efforts on the premise that they enlarge consumer welfare.”  

Recently, however, the notion that a consumer welfare standard (CWS) should guide antitrust enforcement has come under attack (see here). In the United States, this movement has been led by populist “neo-Brandeisians” who have “call[ed] instead for enforcement that takes into account firm size, fairness, labor rights, and the protection of smaller enterprises.” (Interestingly, there appear to be more direct and strident published attacks on the CWS from American critics than from European commentators, perhaps reflecting an unspoken European assumption that “ordoliberal” strong government oversight of markets advances the welfare of consumers and society in general.) The neo-Brandeisian critique is badly flawed and should be rejected.

Assuming that the focus on consumer welfare in U.S. antitrust enforcement survives this latest populist challenge, what considerations should inform the design and application of a CWS? Before considering this question, one must confront the context in which it arises—the claim that the U.S. economy has become far less competitive in recent decades and that antitrust enforcement has been ineffective at addressing this problem. After dispatching with this flawed claim, I advance four principles aimed at properly incorporating consumer-welfare considerations into antitrust-enforcement analysis.  

Does the US Suffer from Poor Antitrust Enforcement and Declining Competition?

Antitrust interventionists assert that lax U.S. antitrust enforcement has coincided with a serious decline in competition—a claim deployed to argue that, even if one assumes that promoting consumer welfare remains an overarching goal, U.S. antitrust policy nonetheless requires a course correction. After all, basic price theory indicates that a reduction in market competition raises deadweight loss and reduces consumers’ relative share of total surplus. As such, it might seem to follow that “ramping up antitrust” would lead to more vigorously competitive markets, featuring less deadweight loss and relatively more consumer surplus.

This argument, of course, avoids error cost, rent seeking, and public choice issues that raise serious questions about the welfare effects of more aggressive “invigorated” enforcement (see here, for example). But more fundamentally, the argument is based on two incorrect premises:

  1. That competition has declined; and
  2. That U.S. trustbusters have applied the CWS in a narrow manner ineffective to address competitive problems.

Those premises (which also underlie President Joe Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy) do not stand up to scrutiny.

In a recent article in the Stigler Center journal Promarket, Yale University economics professor Fiona Scott-Morton and Yale Law student Leah Samuel accepted those premises in complaining about poor antitrust enforcement and substandard competition (hyperlinks omitted and emphasis in the original):

In recent years, the [CWS] term itself has become the target of vocal criticism in light of mounting evidence that recent enforcement—and what many call the “consumer welfare standard era” of antitrust enforcement—has been a failure. …

This strategy of non-enforcement has harmed markets and consumers. Today we see the evidence of this under-enforcement in a range of macroeconomic measures, studies of markups, as well as in merger post-mortems and studies of anticompetitive behavior that agencies have not pursued. Non-economist observers– journalists, advocates, and lawyers – who have noticed the lack of enforcement and the pernicious results have learned to blame “economics” and the CWS. They are correct that using CWS, as defined and warped by Chicago-era jurists and economists, has been a failure. That kind of enforcement—namely, insufficient enforcement—does not protect competition. But we argue that the “economics” at fault are the corporate-sponsored Chicago School assumptions, which are at best outdated, generally unjustified, and usually incorrect.

While the Chicago School caused the “consumer welfare standard” to become associated with an anti-enforcement philosophy in the legal community, it has never changed its meaning among PhD-trained economists.

To an economist, consumer welfare is a well-defined concept. Price, quality, and innovation are all part of the demand curve and all form the basis for the standard academic definition of consumer welfare. CW is the area under the demand curve and above the quality-adjusted price paid. … Quality-adjusted price represents all the value consumers get from the product less the price they paid, and therefore encapsulates the role of quality of any kind, innovation, and price on the welfare of the consumer.

In my published response to Scott-Morton and Samuel, I summarized recent economic literature that contradicts the “competition is declining” claim. I also demonstrated that antitrust enforcement has been robust and successful, refuting the authors’ claim to the contrary (cross links to economic literature omitted):

There are only two problems with the [authors’] argument. First, it is not clear at all that competition has declined during the reign of this supposedly misused [CWS] concept. Second, the consumer welfare standard has not been misapplied at all. Indeed, as antitrust scholars and enforcement officials have demonstrated … modern antitrust enforcement has not adopted a narrow “Chicago School” view of the world. To the contrary, it has incorporated the more sophisticated analysis the authors advocate, and enforcement initiatives have been vigorous and largely successful. Accordingly, the authors’ call for an adjustment in antitrust enforcement is a solution in search of a non-existent problem.

In short, competitive conditions in U.S. markets are robust and have not been declining. Moreover, U.S. antitrust enforcement has been sophisticated and aggressive, fully attuned to considerations of quality and innovation.

A Suggested Framework for Consumer Welfare Analysis

Although recent claims of “weak” U.S. antitrust enforcement are baseless, they do, nevertheless, raise “front and center” the nature of the CWS. The CWS is a worthwhile concept, but it eludes a precise definition. That is as it should be. In our common law system, fact-specific analyses of particular competitive practices are key to determining whether welfare is or is not being advanced in the case at hand. There is no simple talismanic CWS formula that is readily applicable to diverse cases.

While Scott-Morton argues that the area under the demand curve (consumer surplus) is essentially coincident with the CWS, other leading commentators take account of the interests of producers as well. For example, the leading antitrust treatise writer, Herbert Hovenkamp, suggests thinking about consumer welfare in terms of “maxim[izing] output that is consistent with sustainable competition. Output includes quantity, quality, and improvements in innovation. As an aside, it is worth noting that high output favors suppliers, including labor, as well as consumers because job opportunities increase when output is higher.” (Hovenkamp, Federal Antitrust Policy 102 (6th ed. 2020).)

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Christine Wilson (like Ken Heyer and other scholars) advocates a “total welfare standard” (consumer plus producer surplus). She stresses that it would beneficially:

  1. Make efficiencies more broadly cognizable, capturing cost reductions not passed through in the short run;
  2. Better enable the agencies to consider multi-market effects (whether consumer welfare gains in one market swamp consumer welfare losses in another market); and
  3. Better capture dynamic efficiencies (such as firm-specific efficiencies that are emulated by other “copycat” firms in the market).

Hovenkamp and Wilson point to the fact that efficiency-enhancing business conduct often has positive ramifications for both consumers and producers. As such, a CWS that focuses narrowly on short-term consumer surplus may prompt antitrust challenges to conduct that, properly understood, will prove beneficial to both consumers and producers over time.

With this in mind, I will now suggest four general “framework principles” to inform a CWS analysis that properly accounts for innovation and dynamic factors. These principles are tentative and merely suggestive, intended to prompt a further dialogue on CWS among interested commentators. (Also, many practical details will need to be filled in, based on further analysis.)

  1. Enforcers should consider all effects on consumer welfare in evaluating a transaction. Under the rule of reason, a reduction in surplus to particular defined consumers should not condemn a business practice (merger or non-merger) if other consumers are likely to enjoy accretions to surplus and if aggregate consumer surplus appears unlikely to decline, on net, due to the practice. Surplus need not be quantified—the likely direction of change in surplus is all that is required. In other words, “actual welfare balancing” is not required, consistent with the practical impossibility of quantifying new welfare effects in almost all cases (see, e.g., Hovenkamp, here). This principle is unaffected by market definition—all affected consumers should be assessed, whether they are “in” or “out” of a hypothesized market.
  2. Vertical intellectual-property-licensing contracts should not be subject to antitrust scrutiny unless there is substantial evidence that they are being used to facilitate horizontal collusion. This principle draws on the “New Madison Approach” associated with former Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Makan Delrahim. It applies to a set of practices that further the interests of both consumers and producers. Vertical IP licensing (particularly patent licensing) “is highly important to the dynamic and efficient dissemination of new technologies throughout the economy, which, in turn, promotes innovation and increased welfare (consumer and producer surplus).” (See here, for example.) The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ refusal to condemn Qualcomm’s patent-licensing contracts (which had been challenged by the FTC) is consistent with this principle; it “evinces a refusal to find anticompetitive harm in licensing markets without hard empirical support.” (See here.)
  3. Furthermore, enforcers should carefully assess the ability of “non-standard” commercial contracts—horizontal and vertical—to overcome market failures, as described by transaction-cost economics (see here, and here, for example). Non-standard contracts may be designed to deal with problems (for instance) of contractual incompleteness and opportunism that stymie efforts to advance new commercial opportunities. To the extent that such contracts create opportunities for transactions that expand or enhance market offerings, they generate new consumer surplus (new or “shifted out” demand curves) and enhance consumer welfare. Thus, they should enjoy a general (though rebuttable) presumption of legality.
  4. Fourth, and most fundamentally, enforcers should take account of cost-benefit analysis, rooted in error-cost considerations, in their enforcement initiatives, in order to further consumer welfare. As I have previously written:

Assuming that one views modern antitrust enforcement as an exercise in consumer welfare maximization, what does that tell us about optimal antitrust enforcement policy design? In order to maximize welfare, enforcers must have an understanding of – and seek to maximize the difference between – the aggregate costs and benefits that are likely to flow from their policies. It therefore follows that cost-benefit analysis should be applied to antitrust enforcement design. Specifically, antitrust enforcers first should ensure that the rules they propagate create net welfare benefits. Next, they should (to the extent possible) seek to calibrate those rules so as to maximize net welfare. (Significantly, Federal Trade Commissioner Josh Wright also has highlighted the merits of utilizing cost-benefit analysis in the work of the FTC.) [Eight specific suggestions for implementing cost-beneficial antitrust evaluations are then put forth in this article.]

Conclusion

One must hope that efforts to eliminate consumer welfare as the focal point of U.S. antitrust will fail. But even if they do, market-oriented commentators should be alert to any efforts to “hijack” the CWS by interventionist market-skeptical scholars. A particular threat may involve efforts to define the CWS as merely involving short-term consumer surplus maximization in narrowly defined markets. Such efforts could, if successful, justify highly interventionist enforcement protocols deployed against a wide variety of efficient (though too often mischaracterized) business practices.

To counter interventionist antitrust proposals, it is important to demonstrate that claims of faltering competition and inadequate antitrust enforcement under current norms simply are inaccurate. Such an effort, though necessary, is not enough.

In order to win the day, it will be important for market mavens to explain that novel business practices aimed at promoting producer surplus tend to increase consumer surplus as well. That is because efficiency-enhancing stratagems (often embodied in restrictive IP-licensing agreements and non-standard contracts) that further innovation and overcome transaction-cost difficulties frequently pave the way for innovation and the dissemination of new technologies throughout the economy. Those effects, in turn, expand and create new market opportunities, yielding huge additions to consumer surplus—accretions that swamp short-term static effects.

Enlightened enforcers should apply enforcement protocols that allow such benefits to be taken into account. They should also focus on the interests of all consumers affected by a practice, not just a narrow subset of targeted potentially “harmed” consumers. Finally, public officials should view their enforcement mission through a cost-benefit lens, which is designed to promote welfare. 

Democratic leadership of the House Judiciary Committee have leaked the approach they plan to take to revise U.S. antitrust law and enforcement, with a particular focus on digital platforms. 

Broadly speaking, the bills would: raise fees for larger mergers and increase appropriations to the FTC and DOJ; require data portability and interoperability; declare that large platforms can’t own businesses that compete with other businesses that use the platform; effectively ban large platforms from making any acquisitions; and generally declare that large platforms cannot preference their own products or services. 

All of these are ideas that have been discussed before. They are very much in line with the EU’s approach to competition, which places more regulation-like burdens on big businesses, and which is introducing a Digital Markets Act that mirrors the Democrats’ proposals. Some Republicans are reportedly supportive of the proposals, which is surprising since they mean giving broad, discretionary powers to antitrust authorities that are controlled by Democrats who take an expansive view of antitrust enforcement as a way to achieve their other social and political goals. The proposals may also be unpopular with consumers if, for example, they would mean that popular features like integrating Maps into relevant Google Search results becomes prohibited.

The multi-bill approach here suggests that the committee is trying to throw as much at the wall as possible to see what sticks. It may reflect a lack of confidence among the proposers in their ability to get their proposals through wholesale, especially given that Amy Klobuchar’s CALERA bill in the Senate creates an alternative that, while still highly interventionist, does not create ex ante regulation of the Internet the same way these proposals do.

In general, the bills are misguided for three main reasons. 

One, they seek to make digital platforms into narrow conduits for other firms to operate on, ignoring the value created by platforms curating their own services by, for example, creating quality controls on entry (as Apple does on its App Store) or by integrating their services with related products (like, say, Google adding events from Gmail to users’ Google Calendars). 

Two, they ignore the procompetitive effects of digital platforms extending into each other’s markets and competing with each other there, in ways that often lead to far more intense competition—and better outcomes for consumers—than if the only firms that could compete with the incumbent platform were small startups.

Three, they ignore the importance of incentives for innovation. Platforms invest in new and better products when they can make money from doing so, and limiting their ability to do that means weakened incentives to innovate. Startups and their founders and investors are driven, in part, by the prospect of being acquired, often by the platforms themselves. Making those acquisitions more difficult, or even impossible, means removing one of the key ways startup founders can exit their firms, and hence one of the key rewards and incentives for starting an innovative new business. 

For more, our “Joint Submission of Antitrust Economists, Legal Scholars, and Practitioners” set out why many of the House Democrats’ assumptions about the state of the economy and antitrust enforcement were mistaken. And my post, “Buck’s “Third Way”: A Different Road to the Same Destination”, argued that House Republicans like Ken Buck were misguided in believing they could support some of the proposals and avoid the massive regulatory oversight that they said they rejected.

Platform Anti-Monopoly Act 

The flagship bill, introduced by Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), establishes a definition of “covered platform” used by several of the other bills. The measures would apply to platforms with at least 500,000 U.S.-based users, a market capitalization of more than $600 billion, and that is deemed a “critical trading partner” with the ability to restrict or impede the access that a “dependent business” has to its users or customers.

Cicilline’s bill would bar these covered platforms from being able to promote their own products and services over the products and services of competitors who use the platform. It also defines a number of other practices that would be regarded as discriminatory, including: 

  • Restricting or impeding “dependent businesses” from being able to access the platform or its software on the same terms as the platform’s own lines of business;
  • Conditioning access or status on purchasing other products or services from the platform; 
  • Using user data to support the platform’s own products in ways not extended to competitors; 
  • Restricting the platform’s commercial users from using or accessing data generated on the platform from their own customers;
  • Restricting platform users from uninstalling software pre-installed on the platform;
  • Restricting platform users from providing links to facilitate business off of the platform;
  • Preferencing the platform’s own products or services in search results or rankings;
  • Interfering with how a dependent business prices its products; 
  • Impeding a dependent business’ users from connecting to services or products that compete with those offered by the platform; and
  • Retaliating against users who raise concerns with law enforcement about potential violations of the act.

On a basic level, these would prohibit lots of behavior that is benign and that can improve the quality of digital services for users. Apple pre-installing a Weather app on the iPhone would, for example, run afoul of these rules, and the rules as proposed could prohibit iPhones from coming with pre-installed apps at all. Instead, users would have to manually download each app themselves, if indeed Apple was allowed to include the App Store itself pre-installed on the iPhone, given that this competes with other would-be app stores.

Apart from the obvious reduction in the quality of services and convenience for users that this would involve, this kind of conduct (known as “self-preferencing”) is usually procompetitive. For example, self-preferencing allows platforms to compete with one another by using their strength in one market to enter a different one; Google’s Shopping results in the Search page increase the competition that Amazon faces, because it presents consumers with a convenient alternative when they’re shopping online for products. Similarly, Amazon’s purchase of the video-game streaming service Twitch, and the self-preferencing it does to encourage Amazon customers to use Twitch and support content creators on that platform, strengthens the competition that rivals like YouTube face. 

It also helps innovation, because it gives firms a reason to invest in services that would otherwise be unprofitable for them. Google invests in Android, and gives much of it away for free, because it can bundle Google Search into the OS, and make money from that. If Google could not self-preference Google Search on Android, the open source business model simply wouldn’t work—it wouldn’t be able to make money from Android, and would have to charge for it in other ways that may be less profitable and hence give it less reason to invest in the operating system. 

This behavior can also increase innovation by the competitors of these companies, both by prompting them to improve their products (as, for example, Google Android did with Microsoft’s mobile operating system offerings) and by growing the size of the customer base for products of this kind. For example, video games published by console manufacturers (like Nintendo’s Zelda and Mario games) are often blockbusters that grow the overall size of the user base for the consoles, increasing demand for third-party titles as well.

For more, check out “Against the Vertical Discrimination Presumption” by Geoffrey Manne and Dirk Auer’s piece “On the Origin of Platforms: An Evolutionary Perspective”.

Ending Platform Monopolies Act 

Sponsored by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), this bill would make it illegal for covered platforms to control lines of business that pose “irreconcilable conflicts of interest,” enforced through civil litigation powers granted to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ).

Specifically, the bill targets lines of business that create “a substantial incentive” for the platform to advantage its own products or services over those of competitors that use the platform, or to exclude or disadvantage competing businesses from using the platform. The FTC and DOJ could potentially order that platforms divest lines of business that violate the act.

This targets similar conduct as the previous bill, but involves the forced separation of different lines of business. It also appears to go even further, seemingly implying that companies like Google could not even develop services like Google Maps or Chrome because their existence would create such “substantial incentives” to self-preference them over the products of their competitors. 

Apart from the straightforward loss of innovation and product developments this would involve, requiring every tech company to be narrowly focused on a single line of business would substantially entrench Big Tech incumbents, because it would make it impossible for them to extend into adjacent markets to compete with one another. For example, Apple could not develop a search engine to compete with Google under these rules, and Amazon would be forced to sell its video-streaming services that compete with Netflix and Youtube.

For more, check out Geoffrey Manne’s written testimony to the House Antitrust Subcommittee and “Platform Self-Preferencing Can Be Good for Consumers and Even Competitors” by Geoffrey and me. 

Platform Competition and Opportunity Act

Introduced by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), this bill would bar covered platforms from making essentially any acquisitions at all. To be excluded from the ban on acquisitions, the platform would have to present “clear and convincing evidence” that the acquired business does not compete with the platform for any product or service, does not pose a potential competitive threat to the platform, and would not in any way enhance or help maintain the acquiring platform’s market position. 

The two main ways that founders and investors can make a return on a successful startup are to float the company at IPO or to be acquired by another business. The latter of these, acquisitions, is extremely important. Between 2008 and 2019, 90 percent of U.S. start-up exits happened through acquisition. In a recent survey, half of current startup executives said they aimed to be acquired. One study found that countries that made it easier for firms to be taken over saw a 40-50 percent increase in VC activity, and that U.S. states that made acquisitions harder saw a 27 percent decrease in VC investment deals

So this proposal would probably reduce investment in U.S. startups, since it makes it more difficult for them to be acquired. It would therefore reduce innovation as a result. It would also reduce inter-platform competition by banning deals that allow firms to move into new markets, like the acquisition of Beats that helped Apple to build a Spotify competitor, or the deals that helped Google, Microsoft, and Amazon build cloud-computing services that all compete with each other. It could also reduce competition faced by old industries, by preventing tech companies from buying firms that enable it to move into new markets—like Amazon’s acquisitions of health-care companies that it has used to build a health-care offering. Even Walmart’s acquisition of Jet.com, which it has used to build an Amazon competitor, could have been banned under this law if Walmart had had a higher market cap at the time.

For more, check out Dirk Auer’s piece “Facebook and the Pros and Cons of Ex Post Merger Reviews” and my piece “Cracking down on mergers would leave us all worse off”. 

ACCESS Act

The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act, sponsored by Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), would establish data portability and interoperability requirements for platforms. 

Under terms of the legislation, covered platforms would be required to allow third parties to transfer data to their users or, with the user’s consent, to a competing business. It also would require platforms to facilitate compatible and interoperable communications with competing businesses. The law directs the FTC to establish technical committees to promulgate the standards for portability and interoperability. 

Data portability and interoperability involve trade-offs in terms of security and usability, and overseeing them can be extremely costly and difficult. In security terms, interoperability requirements prevent companies from using closed systems to protect users from hostile third parties. Mandatory openness means increasing—sometimes, substantially so—the risk of data breaches and leaks. In practice, that could mean users’ private messages or photos being leaked more frequently, or activity on a social media page that a user considers to be “their” private data, but that “belongs” to another user under the terms of use, can be exported and publicized as such. 

It can also make digital services more buggy and unreliable, by requiring that they are built in a more “open” way that may be more prone to unanticipated software mismatches. A good example is that of Windows vs iOS; Windows is far more interoperable with third-party software than iOS is, but tends to be less stable as a result, and users often prefer the closed, stable system. 

Interoperability requirements also entail ongoing regulatory oversight, to make sure data is being provided to third parties reliably. It’s difficult to build an app around another company’s data without assurance that the data will be available when users want it. For a requirement as broad as this bill’s, that could mean setting up quite a large new de facto regulator. 

In the UK, Open Banking (an interoperability requirement imposed on British retail banks) has suffered from significant service outages, and targets a level of uptime that many developers complain is too low for them to build products around. Nor has Open Banking yet led to any obvious competition benefits.

For more, check out Gus Hurwitz’s piece “Portable Social Media Aren’t Like Portable Phone Numbers” and my piece “Why Data Interoperability Is Harder Than It Looks: The Open Banking Experience”.

Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act

A bill that mirrors language in the Endless Frontier Act recently passed by the U.S. Senate, would significantly raise filing fees for the largest mergers. Rather than the current cap of $280,000 for mergers valued at more than $500 million, the bill—sponsored by Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.)–the new schedule would assess fees of $2.25 million for mergers valued at more than $5 billion; $800,000 for those valued at between $2 billion and $5 billion; and $400,000 for those between $1 billion and $2 billion.

Smaller mergers would actually see their filing fees cut: from $280,000 to $250,000 for those between $500 million and $1 billion; from $125,000 to $100,000 for those between $161.5 million and $500 million; and from $45,000 to $30,000 for those less than $161.5 million. 

In addition, the bill would appropriate $418 million to the FTC and $252 million to the DOJ’s Antitrust Division for Fiscal Year 2022. Most people in the antitrust world are generally supportive of more funding for the FTC and DOJ, although whether this is actually good or not depends both on how it’s spent at those places. 

It’s hard to object if it goes towards deepening the agencies’ capacities and knowledge, by hiring and retaining higher quality staff with salaries that are more competitive with those offered by the private sector, and on greater efforts to study the effects of the antitrust laws and past cases on the economy. If it goes toward broadening the activities of the agencies, by doing more and enabling them to pursue a more aggressive enforcement agenda, and supporting whatever of the above proposals make it into law, then it could be very harmful. 

For more, check out my post “Buck’s “Third Way”: A Different Road to the Same Destination” and Thom Lambert’s post “Bad Blood at the FTC”.

In order to understand the lack of apparent basis for the European Commission’s claims that AstraZeneca is in breach of its contractual obligations to supply it with vaccine doses, it is necessary to understand the difference between stock and flow.

If I have 1,000 widgets in my warehouse, and agree to sell 700 of them to Ursula, and 600 of them to Boris, I will be unable to perform both contracts. They’re inconsistent with one another, and if I choose to perform my contract with Boris, Ursula will be understandably aggrieved. Is this what AstraZeneca have done? No.

At the time of the contracts AstraZenca entered into with the Commission and the United Kingdom no vaccine doses existed. What AstraZeneca promised was to use best reasonable efforts to acquire approval for and production of vaccines, and to deliver what it succeeded in making.

The United Kingdom was involved from an early stage (January/February) in the roll out of what was to become the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. It was a third party beneficiary of the original licensing agreement of 17 May between Oxford and AstraZeneca, and provided the initial funding of £65 million (quickly greatly increased). Approval for use was given on 30 December, with the first dose given outside a trial on 4 January.

The Commission was slower to act. It entered into a contract with AstraZeneca on 17 August and granted authorisation for use on 29 January.

What each counterparty is entitled to is the doses that AstraZeneca succeeds, using best reasonable efforts, in producing under its contract. A metaphor is that each is buying a place in a production queue [Flow]. Neither was buying doses current in existence [Stock].

The metaphor of the queue is however somewhat misleading. It implies that the Commission is having to wait behind the United Kingdom. This is wrong. In fact, the Commission (and other parties) are benefitting from the earlier development and ramp up of production that occurred because of the United Kingdom’s contractual arrangements. Far from being prejudiced by the United Kingdom’s actions, the Commission and others have benefitted from it.

The Commission’s argument is not, and never has been, as some have supposed, that AstraZeneca has failed in its best reasonable efforts obligation to manufacture doses. Such an argument does the Commission no good. It would leave it with a claim for damages before a Belgian court in several years’ time. It is also seems unlikely that a claim that AstraZeneca have been dilatory in rolling out a vaccine in a fraction of the time anyone had achieved before this year, and which other suppliers failed altogether to do, has much prospect for success.

What it (and the Member States) want are doses today.

So, the argument instead is that AstraZeneca has succeeded and that there are doses in existence that the Commission is entitled to. This is based in part upon the frustration in seeing deliveries of vaccine doses to the United Kingdom from factories that the Commission’s contract says that AstraZeneca can deliver doses to it from.

Their position appears untenable. The Commission is entitled to those doses that its supplier succeeds, using best reasonable efforts, in producing under its contract with it. It is not entitled to doses that are only in existence because of earlier contractual arrangements with an entirely different counterparty.

In practice, which doses are being produced under which contract will be obvious from the fact that most production is being done by subcontractors (AstraZeneca is a relatively small producer). The shortfall in production under the Commission’s contract appears to have been caused by a failure of a sub-contractor in Belgium.

It is because the Commission’s arguments under its contract are so obviously weak that we are now seeing calls for export bans. If there really were any contractual entitlement to what has been produced, and AstraZeneca were in breach of contract in failing to deliver, then the usual civil recourse would be the obvious and easy path for the Commission. The nuclear option is being relied upon because of the lack of any such contractual right.

Conversely there is no equivalence between the United Kingdom requiring that doses that it is contractually entitled to are delivered to it, and the Commission’s proposed export ban.

Red Herrings

Two common objections to the above have been put forward that it is helpful to rule out. First the Commission’s contract is governed by Belgian law. However, there is no rule specific to any jurisdiction in play here. All that needs to be known is pacta sunt servanda, a principle applicable across Europe.

Second is that the UK’s supply contract was only actually formalised in August. The earlier agreement was however months before, as was the funding that has resulted in the doses that there are for anybody.

The author is an expert in English and European contract law.

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.

Much has already been said about the twin antitrust suits filed by Epic Games against Apple and Google. For those who are not familiar with the cases, the game developer – most famous for its hit title Fortnite and the “Unreal Engine” that underpins much of the game (and movie) industry – is complaining that Apple and Google are thwarting competition from rival app stores and in-app payment processors. 

Supporters have been quick to see in these suits a long-overdue challenge against the 30% commissions that Apple and Google charge. Some have even portrayed Epic as a modern-day Robin Hood, leading the fight against Big Tech to the benefit of small app developers and consumers alike. Epic itself has been keen to stoke this image, comparing its litigation to a fight for basic freedoms in the face of Big Brother:

However, upon closer inspection, cracks rapidly appear in this rosy picture. What is left is a company partaking in blatant rent-seeking that threatens to harm the sprawling ecosystems that have emerged around both Apple and Google’s app stores.

Two issues are particularly salient. First, Epic is trying to protect its own interests at the expense of the broader industry. If successful, its suit would merely lead to alternative revenue schemes that – although more beneficial to itself – would leave smaller developers to shoulder higher fees. Second, the fees that Epic portrays as extortionate were in fact key to the emergence of mobile gaming.

Epic’s utopia is not an equilibrium

Central to Epic’s claims is the idea that both Apple and Google: (i) thwart competition from rival app stores, and implement a series of measures that prevent developers from reaching gamers through alternative means (such as pre-installing apps, or sideloading them in the case of Apple’s platforms); and (ii) tie their proprietary payment processing services to their app stores. According to Epic, this ultimately enables both Apple and Google to extract “extortionate” commissions (30%) from app developers.

But Epic’s whole case is based on the unrealistic assumption that both Apple and Google will sit idly by while rival play stores and payment systems take a free-ride on the vast investments they have ploughed into their respective smartphone platforms. In other words, removing Apple and Google’s ability to charge commissions on in-app purchases does not prevent them from monetizing their platforms elsewhere.

Indeed, economic and strategic management theory tells us that so long as Apple and Google single-handedly control one of the necessary points of access to their respective ecosystems, they should be able to extract a sizable share of the revenue generated on their platforms. One can only speculate, but it is easy to imagine Apple and Google charging rival app stores for access to their respective platforms, or charging developers for access to critical APIs.

Epic itself seems to concede this point. In a recent Verge article, it argued that Apple was threatening to cut off its access to iOS and Mac developer tools, which Apple currently offers at little to no cost:

Apple will terminate Epic’s inclusion in the Apple Developer Program, a membership that’s necessary to distribute apps on iOS devices or use Apple developer tools, if the company does not “cure your breaches” to the agreement within two weeks, according to a letter from Apple that was shared by Epic. Epic won’t be able to notarize Mac apps either, a process that could make installing Epic’s software more difficult or block it altogether. Apple requires that all apps are notarized before they can be run on newer versions of macOS, even if they’re distributed outside the App Store.

There is little to prevent Apple from more heavily monetizing these tools – should Epic’s antitrust case successfully prevent it from charging commissions via its app store.

All of this raises the question: why is Epic bringing a suit that, if successful, would merely result in the emergence of alternative fee schedules (as opposed to a significant reduction of the overall fees paid by developers).

One potential answer is that the current system is highly favorable to small apps that earn little to no revenue from purchases and who benefit most from the trust created by Apple and Google’s curation of their stores. It is, however, much less favorable to developers like Epic who no longer require any curation to garner the necessary trust from consumers and who earn a large share of their revenue from in-app purchases.

In more technical terms, the fact that all in-game payments are made through Apple and Google’s payment processing enables both platforms to more easily price-discriminate. Unlike fixed fees (but just like royalties), percentage commissions are necessarily state-contingent (i.e. the same commission will lead to vastly different revenue depending on an underlying app’s success). The most successful apps thus contribute far more to a platform’s fixed costs. For instance, it is estimated that mobile games account for 72% of all app store spend. Likewise, more than 80% of the apps on Apple’s store pay no commission at all.

This likely expands app store output by getting lower value developers on board. In that sense, it is akin to Ramsey pricing (where a firm/utility expands social welfare by allocating a higher share of fixed costs to the most inelastic consumers). Unfortunately, this would be much harder to accomplish if high value developers could easily bypass Apple or Google’s payment systems.

The bottom line is that Epic appears to be fighting to change Apple and Google’s app store business models in order to obtain fee schedules that are better aligned with its own interests. This is all the more important for Epic Games, given that mobile gaming is becoming increasingly popular relative to other gaming mediums (also here).

The emergence of new gaming platforms

Up to this point, I have mostly presented a zero-sum view of Epic’s lawsuit – i.e. developers and platforms are fighting over the distribution app store profits (though some smaller developers may lose out). But this ignores what is likely the chief virtue of Apple and Google’s “closed” distribution model. Namely, that it has greatly expanded the market for mobile gaming (and other mobile software), and will likely continue to do so in the future.

Much has already been said about the significant security and trust benefits that Apple and Google’s curation of their app stores (including their control of in-app payments) provide to users. Benedict Evans and Ben Thompson have both written excellent pieces on this very topic. 

In a nutshell, the closed model allows previously unknown developers to rapidly expand because (i) users do not have to fear their apps contain some form of malware, and (ii) they greatly reduce payments frictions, most notably security related ones. But while these are indeed tremendous benefits, another important upside seems to have gone relatively unnoticed. 

The “closed” business model also gives Apple and Google (as well as other platforms) significant incentives to develop new distribution mediums (smart TVs spring to mind) and improve existing ones. In turn, this greatly expands the audience that software developers can reach. In short, developers get a smaller share of a much larger pie.

The economics of two-sided markets are enlightening in this respect. Apple and Google’s stores are what Armstrong and Wright (here and here) refer to as “competitive bottlenecks”. That is, they compete aggressively (amongst themselves, and with other gaming platforms) to attract exclusive users. They can then charge developers a premium to access those users (note, however, that in the case at hand the incidence of those platform fees is unclear).

This gives platforms significant incentives to continuously attract and retain new users. For instance, if Steve Jobs is to be believed, giving consumers better access to media such as eBooks, video and games was one of the driving forces behind the launch of the iPad

This model of innovation would be seriously undermined if developers and consumers could easily bypass platforms (as Epic games is seeking to do).

In response, some commentators have countered that platforms may use their strong market positions to squeeze developers, thereby undermining software investments. But such a course of action may ultimately be self-defeating. For instance, writing about retail platforms imitating third-party sellers, Anfrei Hagiu, Tat-How Teh and Julian Wright have argued that:

[T]he platform has an incentive to commit itself not to imitate highly innovative third-party products in order to preserve their incentives to innovate.

Seen in this light, Apple and Google’s 30% commissions can be seen as a soft commitment not to expropriate developers, thus leaving them with a sizable share of the revenue generated on each platform. This may explain why the 30% commission has become a standard in the games industry (and beyond). 

Furthermore, from an evolutionary perspective, it is hard to argue that the 30% commission is somehow extortionate. If game developers were systematically expropriated, then the gaming industry – in particular its mobile segment – would not have grown so drastically over the past years:

All of this this likely explains why a recent survey found that 81% of app developers believed regulatory intervention would be misguided:

81% of developers and publishers believe that the relationship between them and platforms is best handled within the industry, rather than through government intervention. Competition and choice mean that developers will use platforms that they work with best.

The upshot is that the “closed” model employed by Apple and Google has served the gaming industry well. There is little compelling reason to overhaul that model today.

Final thoughts

When all is said and done, there is no escaping the fact that Epic games is currently playing a high-stakes rent-seeking game. As Apple noted in its opposition to Epic’s motion for a temporary restraining order:

Epic did not, and has not, contested that it is in breach of the App Store Guidelines and the License Agreement. Epic’s plan was to violate the agreements intentionally in order to manufacture an emergency. The moment Fortnite was removed from the App Store, Epic launched an extensive PR smear campaign against Apple and a litigation plan was orchestrated to the minute; within hours, Epic had filed a 56-page complaint, and within a few days, filed nearly 200 pages with this Court in a pre-packaged “emergency” motion. And just yesterday, it even sought to leverage its request to this Court for a sales promotion, announcing a “#FreeFortniteCup” to take place on August 23, inviting players for one last “Battle Royale” across “all platforms” this Sunday, with prizes targeting Apple.

Epic is ultimately seeking to introduce its own app store on both Apple and Google’s platforms, or at least bypass their payment processing services (as Spotify is seeking to do in the EU).

Unfortunately, as this post has argued, condoning this type of free-riding could prove highly detrimental to the entire mobile software industry. Smaller companies would almost inevitably be left to foot a larger share of the bill, existing platforms would become less secure, and the development of new ones could be hindered. At the end of the day, 30% might actually be a small price to pay.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Geoffrey A. Manne, (President, ICLE; Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business, and Economics); and Dirk Auer, (Senior Fellow of Law & Economics, ICLE)]

Back in 2012, Covidien, a large health care products company and medical device manufacturer, purchased Newport Medical Instruments, a small ventilator developer and manufacturer. (Covidien itself was subsequently purchased by Medtronic in 2015).

Eight years later, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Times has just published an article revisiting the Covidien/Newport transaction, and questioning whether it might have contributed to the current shortage of ventilators.

The article speculates that Covidien’s purchase of Newport, and the subsequent discontinuation of Newport’s “Aura” ventilator — which was then being developed by Newport under a government contract — delayed US government efforts to procure mechanical ventilators until the second half of 2020 — too late to treat the first wave of COVID-19 patients:

And then things suddenly veered off course. A multibillion-dollar maker of medical devices bought the small California company that had been hired to design the new machines. The project ultimately produced zero ventilators.

That failure delayed the development of an affordable ventilator by at least half a decade, depriving hospitals, states and the federal government of the ability to stock up.

* * *

Today, with the coronavirus ravaging America’s health care system, the nation’s emergency-response stockpile is still waiting on its first shipment.

The article has generated considerable interest not so much for what it suggests about government procurement policies or for its relevance to the ventilator shortages associated with the current pandemic, but rather for its purported relevance to ongoing antitrust debates and the arguments put forward by “antitrust populists” and others that merger enforcement in the US is dramatically insufficient. 

Only a single sentence in the article itself points to a possible antitrust story — and it does nothing more than report unsubstantiated speculation from unnamed “government officials” and rival companies: 

Government officials and executives at rival ventilator companies said they suspected that Covidien had acquired Newport to prevent it from building a cheaper product that would undermine Covidien’s profits from its existing ventilator business.

Nevertheless, and right on cue, various antitrust scholars quickly framed the deal as a so-called “killer acquisition” (see also here and here):

Unsurprisingly, politicians were also quick to jump on the bandwagon. David Cicilline, the powerful chairman of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, opined that:

And FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter quickly called for a retrospective review of the deal:

The public reporting on this acquisition raises important questions about the review of this deal. We should absolutely be looking back to figure out what happened.

These “hot takes” raise a crucial issue. The New York Times story opened the door to a welter of hasty conclusions offered to support the ongoing narrative that antitrust enforcement has failed us — in this case quite literally at the cost of human lives. But are any of these claims actually supportable?

Unfortunately, the competitive realities of the mechanical ventilator industry, as well as a more clear-eyed view of what was likely going on with the failed government contract at the heart of the story, simply do not support the “killer acquisition” story.

What is a “killer acquisition”…?

Let’s take a step back. Because monopoly profits are, by definition, higher than joint duopoly profits (all else equal), economists have long argued that incumbents may find it profitable to acquire smaller rivals in order to reduce competition and increase their profits. More specifically, incumbents may be tempted to acquire would-be entrants in order to prevent them from introducing innovations that might hurt the incumbent’s profits.

For this theory to have any purchase, however, a number of conditions must hold. Most importantly, as Colleen Cunningham, Florian Ederer, and Song Ma put it in an influential paper

“killer acquisitions” can only occur when the entrepreneur’s project overlaps with the acquirer’s existing product…. [W]ithout any product market overlap, the acquirer never has a strictly positive incentive to acquire the entrepreneur… because, without overlap, acquiring the project does not give the acquirer any gains resulting from reduced competition, and the two bargaining entities have exactly the same value for the project.

Moreover, the authors add that:

Successfully developing a new product draws consumer demand and profits away equally from all existing products. An acquiring incumbent is hurt more by such cannibalization when he is a monopolist (i.e., the new product draws demand away only from his own existing product) than when he already faces many other existing competitors (i.e., cannibalization losses are spread over many firms). As a result, as the number of existing competitors increases, the replacement effect decreases and the acquirer’s development decisions become more similar to those of the entrepreneur

Finally, the “killer acquisition” terminology is appropriate only when the incumbent chooses to discontinue its rival’s R&D project:

If incumbents face significant existing competition, acquired projects are not significantly more frequently discontinued than independent projects. Thus, more competition deters incumbents from acquiring and terminating the projects of potential future competitors, which leads to more competition in the future.

…And what isn’t a killer acquisition?

What is left out of this account of killer acquisitions is the age-old possibility that an acquirer purchases a rival precisely because it has superior know-how or a superior governance structure that enables it to realize greater return and more productivity than its target. In the case of a so-called killer acquisition, this means shutting down a negative ROI project and redeploying resources to other projects or other uses — including those that may not have any direct relation to the discontinued project. 

Such “synergistic” mergers are also — like allegedly “killer” mergers — likely to involve acquirers and targets in the same industry and with technological overlap between their R&D projects; it is in precisely these situations that the acquirer is likely to have better knowledge than the target’s shareholders that the target is undervalued because of poor governance rather than exogenous, environmental factors.  

In other words, whether an acquisition is harmful or not — as the epithet “killer” implies it is — depends on whether it is about reducing competition from a rival, on the one hand, or about increasing the acquirer’s competitiveness by putting resources to more productive use, on the other.

As argued below, it is highly unlikely that Covidien’s acquisition of Newport could be classified as a “killer acquisition.” There is thus nothing to suggest that the merger materially impaired competition in the mechanical ventilator market, or that it measurably affected the US’s efforts to fight COVID-19.

The market realities of the ventilator market and its implications for the “killer acquisition” story

1. The mechanical ventilator market is highly competitive

As explained above, “killer acquisitions” are less likely to occur in competitive markets. Yet the mechanical ventilator industry is extremely competitive. 

A number of reports conclude that there is significant competition in the industry. One source cites at least seven large producers. Another report cites eleven large players. And, in the words of another report:

Medical ventilators market competition is intense. 

The conclusion that the mechanical ventilator industry is highly competitive is further supported by the fact that the five largest producers combined reportedly hold only 50% of the market. In other words, available evidence suggests that none of these firms has anything close to a monopoly position. 

This intense competition, along with the small market shares of the merging firms, likely explains why the FTC declined to open an in-depth investigation into Covidien’s acquisition of Newport.

Similarly, following preliminary investigations, neither the FTC nor the European Commission saw the need for an in-depth look at the ventilator market when they reviewed Medtronic’s subsequent acquisition of Covidien (which closed in 2015). Although Medtronic did not produce any mechanical ventilators before the acquisition, authorities (particularly the European Commission) could nevertheless have analyzed that market if Covidien’s presumptive market share was particularly high. The fact that they declined to do so tends to suggest that the ventilator market was relatively unconcentrated.

2. The value of the merger was too small

A second strong reason to believe that Covidien’s purchase of Newport wasn’t a killer acquisition is the acquisition’s value of $103 million

Indeed, if it was clear that Newport was about to revolutionize the ventilator market, then Covidien would likely have been made to pay significantly more than $103 million to acquire it. 

As noted above, the crux of the “killer acquisition” theory is that incumbents can induce welfare-reducing acquisitions by offering to acquire their rivals for significantly more than the present value of their rivals’ expected profits. Because an incumbent undertaking a “killer” takeover expects to earn monopoly profits as a result of the transaction, it can offer a substantial premium and still profit from its investment. It is this basic asymmetry that drives the theory.

Indeed, as a recent article by Kevin Bryan and Erik Hovenkamp notes, an acquisition value out of line with current revenues may be an indicator of the significance of a pending acquisition in which enforcers may not actually know the value of the target’s underlying technology: 

[Where] a court may lack the expertise to [assess the commercial significance of acquired technology]…, the transaction value… may provide a reasonable proxy. Intuitively, if the startup is a relatively small company with relatively few sales to its name, then a very high acquisition price may reasonably suggest that the startup technology has significant promise.

The strategy only works, however, if the target firm’s shareholders agree that share value properly reflects only “normal” expected profits, and not that the target is poised to revolutionize its market with a uniquely low-cost or high-quality product. Relatively low acquisition prices relative to market size, therefore, tend to reflect low (or normal) expected profits, and a low perceived likelihood of radical innovations occurring.

We can apply this reasoning to Covidien’s acquisition of Newport: 

  • Precise and publicly available figures concerning the mechanical ventilator market are hard to come by. Nevertheless, one estimate finds that the global ventilator market was worth $2.715 billion in 2012. Another report suggests that the global market was worth $4.30 billion in 2018; still another that it was worth $4.58 billion in 2019.
  • As noted above, Covidien reported to the SEC that it paid $103 million to purchase Newport (a firm that produced only ventilators and apparently had no plans to branch out). 
  • For context, at the time of the acquisition Covidien had annual sales of $11.8 billion overall, and $743 million in sales of its existing “Airways and Ventilation Products.”

If the ventilator market was indeed worth billions of dollars per year, then the comparatively small $108 million paid by Covidien — small even relative to Covidien’s own share of the market — suggests that, at the time of the acquisition, it was unlikely that Newport was poised to revolutionize the market for mechanical ventilators (for instance, by successfully bringing its Aura ventilator to market). 

The New York Times article claimed that Newport’s ventilators would be sold (at least to the US government) for $3,000 — a substantial discount from the reportedly then-going rate of $10,000. If selling ventilators at this price seemed credible at the time, then Covidien — as well as Newport’s shareholders — knew that Newport was about to achieve tremendous cost savings, enabling it to offer ventilators not only to the the US government, but to purchasers around the world, at an irresistibly attractive — and profitable — price.

Ventilators at the time typically went for about $10,000 each, and getting the price down to $3,000 would be tough. But Newport’s executives bet they would be able to make up for any losses by selling the ventilators around the world.

“It would be very prestigious to be recognized as a supplier to the federal government,” said Richard Crawford, who was Newport’s head of research and development at the time. “We thought the international market would be strong, and there is where Newport would have a good profit on the product.”

If achievable, Newport thus stood to earn a substantial share of the profits in a multi-billion dollar industry. 

Of course, it is necessary to apply a probability to these numbers: Newport’s ventilator was not yet on the market, and had not yet received FDA approval. Nevertheless, if the Times’ numbers seemed credible at the time, then Covidien would surely have had to offer significantly more than $108 million in order to induce Newport’s shareholders to part with their shares.

Given the low valuation, however, as well as the fact that Newport produced other ventilators — and continues to do so to this day, there is no escaping the fact that everyone involved seemed to view Newport’s Aura ventilator as nothing more than a moonshot with, at best, a low likelihood of success. 

Curically, this same reasoning explains why it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the project was ultimately discontinued; recourse to a “killer acquisition” theory is hardly necessary.

3. Lessons from Covidien’s ventilator product decisions  

The killer acquisition claims are further weakened by at least four other important pieces of information: 

  1.  Covidien initially continued to develop Newport’s Aura ventilator, and continued to develop and sell Newport’s other ventilators.
  2. There was little overlap between Covidien and Newport’s ventilators — or, at the very least, they were highly differentiated
  3. Covidien appears to have discontinued production of its own portable ventilator in 2014
  4. The Newport purchase was part of a billion dollar series of acquisitions seemingly aimed at expanding Covidien’s in-hospital (i.e., not-portable) device portfolio

Covidien continued to develop and sell Newport’s ventilators

For a start, while the Aura line was indeed discontinued by Covidien, the timeline is important. The acquisition of Newport by Covidien was announced in March 2012, approved by the FTC in April of the same year, and the deal was closed on May 1, 2012.

However, as the FDA’s 510(k) database makes clear, Newport submitted documents for FDA clearance of the Aura ventilator months after its acquisition by Covidien (June 29, 2012, to be precise). And the Aura received FDA 510(k) clearance on November 9, 2012 — many months after the merger.

It would have made little sense for Covidien to invest significant sums in order to obtain FDA clearance for a project that it planned to discontinue (the FDA routinely requires parties to actively cooperate with it, even after 510(k) applications are submitted). 

Moreover, if Covidien really did plan to discreetly kill off the Aura ventilator, bungling the FDA clearance procedure would have been the perfect cover under which to do so. Yet that is not what it did.

Covidien continued to develop and sell Newport’s other ventilators

Second, and just as importantly, Covidien (and subsequently Medtronic) continued to sell Newport’s other ventilators. The Newport e360 and HT70 are still sold today. Covidien also continued to improve these products: it appears to have introduced an improved version of the Newport HT70 Plus ventilator in 2013.

If eliminating its competitor’s superior ventilators was the only goal of the merger, then why didn’t Covidien also eliminate these two products from its lineup, rather than continue to improve and sell them? 

At least part of the answer, as will be seen below, is that there was almost no overlap between Covidien and Newport’s product lines.

There was little overlap between Covidien’s and Newport’s ventilators

Third — and perhaps the biggest flaw in the killer acquisition story — is that there appears to have been very little overlap between Covidien and Newport’s ventilators. 

This decreases the likelihood that the merger was a killer acquisition. When two products are highly differentiated (or not substitutes at all), sales of the first are less likely to cannibalize sales of the other. As Florian Ederer and his co-authors put it:

Importantly, without any product market overlap, the acquirer never has a strictly positive incentive to acquire the entrepreneur, neither to “Acquire to Kill” nor to “Acquire to Continue.” This is because without overlap, acquiring the project does not give the acquirer any gains resulting from reduced competition, and the two bargaining entities have exactly the same value for the project.

A quick search of the FDA’s 510(k) database reveals that Covidien has three approved lines of ventilators: the Puritan Bennett 980, 840, and 540 (apparently essentially the same as the PB560, the plans to which Medtronic recently made freely available in order to facilitate production during the current crisis). The same database shows that these ventilators differ markedly from Newport’s ventilators (particularly the Aura).

In particular, Covidien manufactured primarily traditional, invasive ICU ventilators (except for the PB540, which is potentially a substitute for the Newport HT70), while Newport made much-more-portable ventilators, suitable for home use (notably the Aura, HT50 and HT70 lines). 

Under normal circumstances, critical care and portable ventilators are not substitutes. As the WHO website explains, portable ventilators are:

[D]esigned to provide support to patients who do not require complex critical care ventilators.

A quick glance at Medtronic’s website neatly illustrates the stark differences between these two types of devices:

This is not to say that these devices do not have similar functionalities, or that they cannot become substitutes in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic. However, in normal times (as was the case when Covidien acquired Newport), hospitals likely did not view these devices as substitutes.

The conclusion that Covidien and Newport’s ventilator were not substitutes finds further support in documents and statements released at the time of the merger. For instance, Covidien’s CEO explained that:

This acquisition is consistent with Covidien’s strategy to expand into adjacencies and invest in product categories where it can develop a global competitive advantage.

And that:

Newport’s products and technology complement our current portfolio of respiratory solutions and will broaden our ventilation platform for patients around the world, particularly in emerging markets.

In short, the fact that almost all of Covidien and Newport’s products were not substitutes further undermines the killer acquisition story. It also tends to vindicate the FTC’s decision to rapidly terminate its investigation of the merger.

Covidien appears to have discontinued production of its own portable ventilator in 2014

Perhaps most tellingly: It appears that Covidien discontinued production of its own competing, portable ventilator, the Puritan Bennett 560, in 2014.

The product is reported on the company’s 2011, 2012 and 2013 annual reports:

Airway and Ventilation Products — airway, ventilator, breathing systems and inhalation therapy products. Key products include: the Puritan Bennett™ 840 line of ventilators; the Puritan Bennett™ 520 and 560 portable ventilator….

(The PB540 was launched in 2009; the updated PB560 in 2010. The PB520 was the EU version of the device, launched in 2011).

But in 2014, the PB560 was no longer listed among the company’s ventilator products:  

Airway & Ventilation, which primarily includes sales of airway, ventilator and inhalation therapy products and breathing systems.

Key airway & ventilation products include: the Puritan Bennett™ 840 and 980 ventilators, the Newport™ e360 and HT70 ventilators….

Nor — despite its March 31 and April 1 “open sourcing” of the specifications and software necessary to enable others to produce the PB560 — did Medtronic appear to have restarted production, and the company did not mention the device in its March 18 press release announcing its own, stepped-up ventilator production plans.

Surely if Covidien had intended to capture the portable ventilator market by killing off its competition it would have continued to actually sell its own, competing device. The fact that the only portable ventilators produced by Covidien by 2014 were those it acquired in the Newport deal strongly suggests that its objective in that deal was the acquisition and deployment of Newport’s viable and profitable technologies — not the abandonment of them. This, in turn, suggests that the Aura was not a viable and profitable technology.

(Admittedly we are unable to determine conclusively that either Covidien or Medtronic stopped producing the PB520/540/560 series of ventilators. But our research seems to indicate strongly that this is indeed the case).

Putting the Newport deal in context

Finally, although not dispositive, it seems important to put the Newport purchase into context. In the same year as it purchased Newport, Covidien paid more than a billion dollars to acquire five other companies, as well — all of them primarily producing in-hospital medical devices. 

That 2012 spending spree came on the heels of a series of previous medical device company acquisitions, apparently totally some four billion dollars. Although not exclusively so, the acquisitions undertaken by Covidien seem to have been primarily targeted at operating room and in-hospital monitoring and treatment — making the putative focus on cornering the portable (home and emergency) ventilator market an extremely unlikely one. 

By the time Covidien was purchased by Medtronic the deal easily cleared antitrust review because of the lack of overlap between the company’s products, with Covidien’s focusing predominantly on in-hospital, “diagnostic, surgical, and critical care” and Medtronic’s on post-acute care.

Newport misjudged the costs associated with its Aura project; Covidien was left to pick up the pieces

So why was the Aura ventilator discontinued?

Although it is almost impossible to know what motivated Covidien’s executives, the Aura ventilator project clearly suffered from many problems. 

The Aura project was intended to meet the requirements of the US government’s BARDA program (under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority). In short, the program sought to create a stockpile of next generation ventilators for emergency situations — including, notably, pandemics. The ventilator would thus have to be designed for events where

mass casualties may be expected, and when shortages of experienced health care providers with respiratory support training, and shortages of ventilators and accessory components may be expected.

The Aura ventilator would thus sit somewhere between Newport’s two other ventilators: the e360 which could be used in pediatric care (for newborns smaller than 5kg) but was not intended for home care use (or the extreme scenarios envisioned by the US government); and the more portable HT70 which could be used in home care environments, but not for newborns. 

Unfortunately, the Aura failed to achieve this goal. The FDA’s 510(k) clearance decision clearly states that the Aura was not intended for newborns:

The AURA family of ventilators is applicable for infant, pediatric and adult patients greater than or equal to 5 kg (11 lbs.).

A press release issued by Medtronic confirms that

the company was unable to secure FDA approval for use in neonatal populations — a contract requirement.

And the US Government RFP confirms that this was indeed an important requirement:

The device must be able to provide the same standard of performance as current FDA pre-market cleared portable ventilators and shall have the following additional characteristics or features: 

Flexibility to accommodate a wide patient population range from neonate to adult.

Newport also seems to have been unable to deliver the ventilator at the low price it had initially forecasted — a common problem for small companies and/or companies that undertake large R&D programs. It also struggled to complete the project within the agreed-upon deadlines. As the Medtronic press release explains:

Covidien learned that Newport’s work on the ventilator design for the Government had significant gaps between what it had promised the Government and what it could deliverboth in terms of being able to achieve the cost of production specified in the contract and product features and performance. Covidien management questioned whether Newport’s ability to complete the project as agreed to in the contract was realistic.

As Jason Crawford, an engineer and tech industry commentator, put it:

Projects fail all the time. “Supplier risk” should be a standard checkbox on anyone’s contingency planning efforts. This is even more so when you deliberately push the price down to 30% of the market rate. Newport did not even necessarily expect to be profitable on the contract.

The above is mostly Covidien’s “side” of the story, of course. But other pieces of evidence lend some credibility to these claims:

  • Newport agreed to deliver its Aura ventilator at a per unit cost of less than $3000. But, even today, this seems extremely ambitious. For instance, the WHO has estimated that portable ventilators cost between $3,300 and $13,500. If Newport could profitably sell the Aura at such a low price, then there was little reason to discontinue it (readers will recall the development of the ventilator was mostly complete when Covidien put a halt to the project).
  • Covidien/Newport is not the only firm to have struggled to offer suitable ventilators at such a low price. Philips (which took Newport’s place after the government contract fell through) also failed to achieve this low price. Rather than the $2,000 price sought in the initial RFP, Philips ultimately agreed to produce the ventilators for $3,280. But it has not yet been able to produce a single ventilator under the government contract at that price.
  • Covidien has repeatedly been forced to recall some of its other ventilators ( here, here and here) — including the Newport HT70. And rival manufacturers have also faced these types of issues (for example, here and here). 

Accordingly, Covidien may well have preferred to cut its losses on the already problem-prone Aura project, before similar issues rendered it even more costly. 

In short, while it is impossible to prove that these development issues caused Covidien to pull the plug on the Aura project, it is certainly plausible that they did. This further supports the hypothesis that Covidien’s acquisition of Newport was not a killer acquisition. 

Ending the Aura project might have been an efficient outcome

As suggested above, moreover, it is entirely possible that Covidien was better able to realize the poor prospects of Newport’s Aura project and also better organized to enable it to make the requisite decision to abandon the project.

A small company like Newport faces greater difficulties abandoning entrepreneurial projects because doing so can impair a privately held firm’s ability to raise funds for subsequent projects.

Moreover, the relatively large share of revue and reputation that Newport — worth $103 million in 2012, versus Covidien’s $11.8 billion — would have realized from fulfilling a substantial US government project could well have induced it to overestimate the project’s viability and to undertake excessive risk in the (vain) hope of bringing the project to fruition.  

While there is a tendency among antitrust scholars, enforcers, and practitioners to look for (and find…) antitrust-related rationales for mergers and other corporate conduct, it remains the case that most corporate control transactions (such as mergers) are driven by the acquiring firm’s expectation that it can manage more efficiently. As Henry G. Manne put it in his seminal article, Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control (1965): 

Since, in a world of uncertainty, profitable transactions will be entered into more often by those whose information is relatively more reliable, it should not surprise us that mergers within the same industry have been a principal form of changing corporate control. Reliable information is often available to suppliers and customers as well. Thus many vertical mergers may be of the control takeover variety rather than of the “foreclosure of competitors” or scale-economies type.

Of course, the same information that renders an acquiring firm in the same line of business knowledgeable enough to operate a target more efficiently could also enable it to effect a “killer acquisition” strategy. But the important point is that a takeover by a firm with a competing product line, after which the purchased company’s product line is abandoned, is at least as consistent with a “market for corporate control” story as with a “killer acquisition” story.

Indeed, as Florian Ederer himself noted with respect to the Covidien/Newport merger, 

“Killer acquisitions” can have a nefarious image, but killing off a rival’s product was probably not the main purpose of the transaction, Ederer said. He raised the possibility that Covidien decided to kill Newport’s innovation upon realising that the development of the devices would be expensive and unlikely to result in profits.

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, Covidien’s acquisition of Newport offers a cautionary tale about reckless journalism, “blackboard economics,” and government failure.

Reckless journalism because the New York Times clearly failed to do the appropriate due diligence for its story. Its journalists notably missed (or deliberately failed to mention) a number of critical pieces of information — such as the hugely important fact that most of Covidien’s and Newport’s products did not overlap, or the fact that there were numerous competitors in the highly competitive mechanical ventilator industry. 

And yet, that did not stop the authors from publishing their extremely alarming story, effectively suggesting that a small medical device merger materially contributed to the loss of many American lives.

The story also falls prey to what Ronald Coase called “blackboard economics”:

What is studied is a system which lives in the minds of economists but not on earth. 

Numerous commentators rushed to fit the story to their preconceived narratives, failing to undertake even a rudimentary examination of the underlying market conditions before they voiced their recriminations. 

The only thing that Covidien and Newport’s merger ostensibly had in common with the killer acquisition theory was the fact that a large firm purchased a small rival, and that the one of the small firm’s products was discontinued. But this does not even begin to meet the stringent conditions that must be fulfilled for the theory to hold water. Unfortunately, critics appear to have completely ignored all contradicting evidence. 

Finally, what the New York Times piece does offer is a chilling tale of government failure.

The inception of the US government’s BARDA program dates back to 2008 — twelve years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US. 

The collapse of the Aura project is no excuse for the fact that, more than six years after the Newport contract fell through, the US government still has not obtained the necessary ventilators. Questions should also be raised about the government’s decision to effectively put all of its eggs in the same basket — twice. If anything, it is thus government failure that was the real culprit. 

And yet the New York Times piece and the critics shouting “killer acquisition!” effectively give the US government’s abject failure here a free pass — all in the service of pursuing their preferred “killer story.”

On Monday, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Qualcomm reportedly requested a 30 day delay to a preliminary ruling in their ongoing dispute over the terms of Qualcomm’s licensing agreements–indicating that they may seek a settlement. The dispute raises important issues regarding the scope of so-called FRAND (“fair reasonable and non-discriminatory”) commitments in the context of standards setting bodies and whether these obligations extend to component level licensing in the absence of an express agreement to do so.

At issue is the FTC’s allegation that Qualcomm has been engaging in “exclusionary conduct” that harms its competitors. Underpinning this allegation is the FTC’s claim that Qualcomm’s voluntary contracts with two American standards bodies imply that Qualcomm is obliged to license on the same terms to rival chip makers. In this post, we examine the allegation and the claim upon which it rests.

The recently requested delay relates to a motion for partial summary judgment filed by the FTC on August 30, 2018–about which more below. But the dispute itself stretches back to January 17, 2017, when the FTC filed for a permanent injunction against Qualcomm Inc. for engaging in unfair methods of competition in violation of Section 5(a) of the FTC Act. FTC’s major claims against Qualcomm were as follows:

  • It has been engaging in “exclusionary conduct”  that taxes its competitors’ baseband processor sales, reduces competitors’ ability and incentives to innovate, and raises the prices to be paid by end consumers for cellphones and tablets.  
  • Qualcomm is causing considerable harm to competition and consumers through its “no license, no chips” policy; its refusal to license to its chipset-maker rivals; and its exclusive deals with Apple.
  • The above practices allow Qualcomm to abuse its dominant position in the supply of CDMA and premium LTE modem chips.
  • Given that Qualcomm has made a commitment to standard setting bodies to license these patents on FRAND terms, such behaviour qualifies as a breach of FRAND.

The complaint was filed on the eve of the new presidential administration, when only three of the five commissioners were in place. Moreover, the Commissioners were not unanimous. Commissioner Ohlhausen delivered a dissenting statement in which she argued:

[T]here is no robust economic evidence of exclusion and anticompetitive effects, either as to the complaint’s core “taxation” theory or to associated allegations like exclusive dealing. Instead the Commission speaks about a possibility that less than supports a vague standalone action under a Section 5 FTC claim.

Qualcomm filed a motion to dismiss on April 3, 2017. This was denied by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The court  found that the FTC has adequately alleged that Qualcomm’s conduct violates § 1 and § 2 of the Sherman Act and that it had entered into exclusive dealing arrangements with Apple. Thus, the court asserted, the FTC has adequately stated a claim under § 5 of the FTCA.

It is important to note that the core of the FTC’s arguments regarding Qualcomm’s abuse of dominant position rests on how it adopts the “no license, no chip” policy and thus breaches its FRAND obligations. However, it falls short of proving how the royalties charged by Qualcomm to OEMs exceeds the FRAND rates actually amounting to a breach, and qualifies as what FTC defines as a “tax” under the price squeeze theory that it puts forth.

(The Court did not go into whether there was a violation of § 5 of the FTC independent of a Sherman Act violation. Had it done so, this would have added more clarity to Section 5 claims, which are increasingly being invoked in antitrust cases even though its scope remains quite amorphous.)

On August 30, the FTC filed a partial summary judgement motion in relation to claims on the applicability of local California contract laws. This would leave antitrust issues to be decided in the subsequent hearing, which is set for January next year.

In a well-reasoned submission, the FTC asserts that Qualcomm is bound by voluntary agreements that it signed with two U.S. based standards development organisations (SDOs):

  1. The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and
  2. The Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS).

These agreements extend to Qualcomm’s standard essential patents (SEPs) on CDMA, UMTS and LTE wireless technologies. Under these contracts, Qualcomm is obligated to license its SEPs to all applicants implementing these standards on FRAND terms.

The FTC asserts that this obligation should be interpreted to extend to Qualcomm’s rival modem chip manufacturers and sellers. It requests the Court to therefore grant a summary judgment since there are no disputed facts on such obligation. It submits that this should “streamline the trial by obviating the need for  extrinsic evidence regarding the meaning of Qualcomm’s commitments on the requirement to license to competitors, to ETSI, a third SDO.”

A review of a heavily redacted filing by FTC and a subsequent response by Qualcomm indicates that questions of fact and law continue to remain as regards Qualcomm’s licensing commitments and their scope. Thus, contrary to the FTC’s assertions, extrinsic evidence is still needed for resolution to some of the questions raised by the parties.

Indeed, the evidence produced by both parties points towards the need for resolution of ambiguities in the contractual agreements that Qualcomm has signed with ATIS and TIA. The scope and purpose of these licensing obligations lie at the core of the motion.

The IP licensing policies of the two SDOs provide for licensing of relevant patents to all applicants who implement these standards on FRAND terms. However, the key issues are whether components such as modem chips can be said to implement standards and whether component level licensing falls within this ambit. Yet, the resolution to these key issues, is unclear.

Qualcomm explains that commitments to ATIS and TIA do not require licenses to be made available for modem chips because modem chips do not implement or practice cellular standards and that standards do not define the operation of modem chips.

In contrast, the complaint by FTC raises the question of whether FRAND commitments extend to licensing at all levels. Different components needed for a device come together to facilitate the adoption and implementation of a standard. However, it does not logically follow that each individual component of the device separately practices or implements that standard even though it contributes to the implementation. While a single component may fully implement a standard, this need not always be the case.

These distinctions are significant from the point of interpreting the scope of the FRAND promise, which is commonly understood to extend to licensing of technologies incorporated in a standard to potential users of the standard. Understanding the meaning of a “user” becomes critical here and Qualcomm’s submission draws attention to this.

An important factor in the determination of a “user” of a particular standard is the extent to which the standard is practiced or implemented therein. Some standards development organisations (SDOs) have addressed this in their policies by clarifying that FRAND obligations extend to those “wholly compliant” or “fully conforming” to the specific standards. Clause 6.1 of the ETSI IPR Policy, clarifies that a patent holder’s obligation to make licenses available is limited to “methods” and “equipments”. It defines an equipment as “a system or device fully conforming to a standard.” And methods as “any method or operation fully conforming to a standard.”

It is noteworthy that the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) Executive Standards Council Appeals Panel in a decision has said that there is no agreement on the definition of the phrase “wholly compliant implementation.”  

Device level licensing is the prevailing industry wide practice by companies like Ericsson, InterDigital, Nokia and others. In November 2017, the European Commission issued guidelines on licensing of SEPs and took a balanced approach on this issue by not prescribing component level licensing in its guidelines.

The former director general of ETSI, Karl Rosenbrock, adopts a contrary view, explaining ETSI’s policy, “allows every company that requests a license to obtain one, regardless of where the prospective licensee is in the chain of production and regardless of whether the prospective licensee is active upstream or downstream.”

Dr. Bertram Huber, a legal expert who personally participated in the drafting of the IPR policy of ETSI, wrote a response to Rosenbrock, in which he explains that ETSI’s IPR policies required licensing obligations for systems “fully conforming” to the standard:

[O]nce a commitment is given to license on FRAND terms, it does not necessarily extend to chipsets and other electronic components of standards-compliant end-devices. He highlights how, in adopting its IPR Policy, ETSI intended to safeguard access to the cellular standards without changing the prevailing industry practice of manufacturers of complete end-devices concluding licenses to the standard essential patents practiced in those end-devices.

Both ATIS and TIA are organizational partners of a collaboration called 3rd Generation Partnership Project along with ETSI and four other SDOs who work on development of cellular technologies. TIA and ATIS are both accredited by ANSI. Therefore, these SDOs are likely to impact one another with the policies each one adopts. In the absence of definitive guidance on interpretation of the IPR policy and contractual terms within the institutional mechanism of ATIS and TIA, at the very least, clarity is needed on the ambit of these policies with respect to component level licensing.

The non-discrimination obligation, which as per FTC, mandates Qualcomm to license to its competitors who manufacture and sell chips, would be limited by the scope of the IPR policy and contractual agreements that bind Qualcomm and depends upon the specific SDO’s policy.  As discussed, the policies of ATIS and TIA are unclear on this.

In conclusion, FTC’s filing does not obviate the need to hear extrinsic evidence on what Qualcomm’s commitments to the ETSI mean. Given the ambiguities in the policies and agreements of ATIS and TIA on whether they include component level licensing or whether the modem chips in their entirety can be said to practice the standard, it would be incorrect to say that there is no genuine dispute of fact (and law) in this instance.

What to make of Wednesday’s decision by the European Commission alleging that Google has engaged in anticompetitive behavior? In this post, I contrast the European Commission’s (EC) approach to competition policy with US antitrust, briefly explore the history of smartphones and then discuss the ruling.

Asked about the EC’s decision the day it was announced, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons noted that, while the market is concentrated, Apple and Google “compete pretty heavily against each other” with their mobile operating systems, in stark contrast to the way the EC defined the market. Simons also stressed that for the FTC what matters is not the structure of the market per se but whether or not there is harm to the consumer. This again contrasts with the European Commission’s approach, which does not require harm to consumers. As Simons put it:

Once they [the European Commission] find that a company is dominant… that imposes upon the company kind of like a fairness obligation irrespective of what the effect is on the consumer. Our regulatory… our antitrust regime requires that there be a harm to consumer welfare — so the consumer has to be injured — so the two tests are a little bit different.

Indeed, and as the history below shows, the popularity of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems arose because they were superior products — not because of anticompetitive conduct on the part of either Apple or Google. On the face of it, the conduct of both Apple and Google has led to consumer benefits, not harms. So, from the perspective of U.S. antitrust authorities, there is no reason to take action.

Moreover, there is a danger that by taking action as the EU has done, competition and innovation will be undermined — which would be a perverse outcome indeed. These concerns were reflected in a statement by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT):

Today’s decision by the European Commission to fine Google over $5 billion and require significant changes to its business model to satisfy EC bureaucrats has the potential to undermine competition and innovation in the United States,” Sen. Lee said. “Moreover, the decision further demonstrates the different approaches to competition policy between U.S. and EC antitrust enforcers. As discussed at the hearing held last December before the Senate’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy & Consumer Rights, U.S. antitrust agencies analyze business practices based on the consumer welfare standard. This analytical framework seeks to protect consumers rather than competitors. A competitive marketplace requires strong antitrust enforcement. However, appropriate competition policy should serve the interests of consumers and not be used as a vehicle by competitors to punish their successful rivals.

Ironically, the fundamental basis for the Commission’s decision is an analytical framework developed by economists at Harvard in the 1950s, which presumes that the structure of a market determines the conduct of the participants, which in turn presumptively affects outcomes for consumers. This “structure-conduct-performance” paradigm has been challenged both theoretically and empirically (and by “challenged,” I mean “demolished”).

Maintaining, as EC Commissioner Vestager has, that “What would serve competition is to have more players,” is to adopt a presumption regarding competition rooted in the structure of the market, without sufficient attention to the facts on the ground. As French economist Jean Tirole noted in his Nobel Prize lecture:

Economists accordingly have advocated a case-by-case or “rule of reason” approach to antitrust, away from rigid “per se” rules (which mechanically either allow or prohibit certain behaviors, ranging from price-fixing agreements to resale price maintenance). The economists’ pragmatic message however comes with a double social responsibility. First, economists must offer a rigorous analysis of how markets work, taking into account both the specificities of particular industries and what regulators do and do not know….

Second, economists must participate in the policy debate…. But of course, the responsibility here goes both ways. Policymakers and the media must also be willing to listen to economists.

In good Tirolean fashion, we begin with an analysis of how the market for smartphones developed. What quickly emerges is that the structure of the market is a function of intense competition, not its absence. And, by extension, mandating a different structure will likely impede competition, or, at the very least, will not likely contribute to it.

A brief history of smartphone competition

In 2006, Nokia’s N70 became the first smartphone to sell more than a million units. It was a beautiful device, with a simple touch screen interface and real push buttons for numbers. The following year, Apple released its first iPhone. It sold 7 million units — about the same as Nokia’s N95 and slightly less than LG’s Shine. Not bad, but paltry compared to the sales of Nokia’s 1200 series phones, which had combined sales of over 250 million that year — about twice the total of all smartphone sales in 2007.

By 2017, smartphones had come to dominate the market, with total sales of over 1.5 billion. At the same time, the structure of the market has changed dramatically. In the first quarter of 2018, Apple’s iPhone X and iPhone 8 were the two best-selling smartphones in the world. In total, Apple shipped just over 52 million phones, accounting for 14.5% of the global market. Samsung, which has a wider range of devices, sold even more: 78 million phones, or 21.7% of the market. At third and fourth place were Huawei (11%) and Xiaomi (7.5%). Nokia and LG didn’t even make it into the top 10, with market shares of only 3% and 1% respectively.

Several factors have driven this highly dynamic market. Dramatic improvements in cellular data networks have played a role. But arguably of greater importance has been the development of software that offers consumers an intuitive and rewarding experience.

Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems have proven to be enormously popular among both users and app developers. This has generated synergies — or what economists call network externalities — as more apps have been developed, so more people are attracted to the ecosystem and vice versa, leading to a virtuous circle that benefits both users and app developers.

By contrast, Nokia’s early smartphones, including the N70 and N95, ran Symbian, the operating system developed for Psion’s handheld devices, which had a clunkier user interface and was more difficult to code — so it was less attractive to both users and developers. In addition, Symbian lacked an effective means of solving the problem of fragmentation of the operating system across different devices, which made it difficult for developers to create apps that ran across the ecosystem — something both Apple (through its closed system) and Google (through agreements with carriers) were able to address. Meanwhile, Java’s MIDP used in LG’s Shine, and its successor J2ME imposed restrictions on developers (such as prohibiting access to files, hardware, and network connections) that seem to have made it less attractive than Android.

The relative superiority of their operating systems enabled Apple and the manufacturers of Android-based phones to steal a march on the early leaders in the smartphone revolution.

The fact that Google allows smartphone manufacturers to install Android for free, distributes Google Play and other apps in a free bundle, and pays such manufacturers for preferential treatment for Google Search, has also kept the cost of Android-based smartphones down. As a result, Android phones are the cheapest on the market, providing a powerful experience for as little as $50. It is reasonable to conclude from this that innovation, driven by fierce competition, has led to devices, operating systems, and apps that provide enormous benefits to consumers.

The Commission decision would harm device manufacturers, app developers and consumers

The EC’s decision seems to disregard the history of smartphone innovation and competition and their ongoing consequences. As Dirk Auer explains, the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) was created specifically to offer an effective alternative to Apple’s iPhone — and it worked. Indeed, it worked so spectacularly that Android is installed on about 80% of all new phones. This success was the result of several factors that the Commission now seeks to undermine:

First, in order to maintain order within the Android universe, and thereby ensure that apps developed for Android would function on the vast majority of Android devices, Google and the OHA sought to limit the extent to which Android “forks” could be created. (Apple didn’t face this problem because its source code is proprietary, so cannot be modified by third-party developers.) One way Google does this is by imposing restrictions on the licensing of its proprietary apps, such as the Google Play store (a repository of apps, similar to Apple’s App Store).

Device manufacturers that don’t conform to these restrictions may still build devices with their forked version of Android — but without those Google apps. Indeed, Amazon chooses to develop a non-conforming version of Android and built its own app repository for its Fire devices (though it is still possible to add the Google Play Store). That strategy seems to be working for Amazon in the tablet market; in 2017 it rose past Samsung to become the second biggest manufacturer of tablets worldwide, after Apple.

Second, in order to be able to offer Android for free to smartphone manufacturers, Google sought to develop unique revenue streams (because, although the software is offered for free, it turns out that software developers generally don’t work for free). The main way Google did this was by requiring manufacturers that choose to install Google Play also to install its browser (Chrome) and search tools, which generate revenue from advertising. At the same time, Google kept its platform open by permitting preloads of rivals’ apps and creating a marketplace where rivals can also reach scale. Mozilla’s Firefox browser, for example, has been downloaded over 100 million times on Android.

The importance of these factors to the success of Android is acknowledged by the EC. But instead of treating them as legitimate business practices that enabled the development of high-quality, low-cost smartphones and a universe of apps that benefits billions of people, the Commission simply asserts that they are harmful, anticompetitive practices.

For example, the Commission asserts that

In order to be able to pre-install on their devices Google’s proprietary apps, including the Play Store and Google Search, manufacturers had to commit not to develop or sell even a single device running on an Android fork. The Commission found that this conduct was abusive as of 2011, which is the date Google became dominant in the market for app stores for the Android mobile operating system.

This is simply absurd, to say nothing of ahistorical. As noted, the restrictions on Android forks plays an important role in maintaining the coherency of the Android ecosystem. If device manufacturers were able to freely install Google apps (and other apps via the Play Store) on devices running problematic Android forks that were unable to run the apps properly, consumers — and app developers — would be frustrated, Google’s brand would suffer, and the value of the ecosystem would be diminished. Extending this restriction to all devices produced by a specific manufacturer, regardless of whether they come with Google apps preinstalled, reinforces the importance of the prohibition to maintaining the coherency of the ecosystem.

It is ridiculous to say that something (efforts to rein in Android forking) that made perfect sense until 2011 and that was central to the eventual success of Android suddenly becomes “abusive” precisely because of that success — particularly when the pre-2011 efforts were often viewed as insufficient and unsuccessful (a January 2012 Guardian Technology Blog post, “How Google has lost control of Android,” sums it up nicely).

Meanwhile, if Google is unable to tie pre-installation of its search and browser apps to the installation of its app store, then it will have less financial incentive to continue to maintain the Android ecosystem. Or, more likely, it will have to find other ways to generate revenue from the sale of devices in the EU — such as charging device manufacturers for Android or Google Play. The result is that consumers will be harmed, either because the ecosystem will be degraded, or because smartphones will become more expensive.

The troubling absence of Apple from the Commission’s decision

In addition, the EC’s decision is troublesome in other ways. First, for its definition of the market. The ruling asserts that “Through its control over Android, Google is dominant in the worldwide market (excluding China) for licensable smart mobile operating systems, with a market share of more than 95%.” But “licensable smart mobile operating systems” is a very narrow definition, as it necessarily precludes operating systems that are not licensable — such as Apple’s iOS and RIM’s Blackberry OS. Since Apple has nearly 25% of the market share of smartphones in Europe, the European Commission has — through its definition of the market — presumed away the primary source of effective competition. As Pinar Akman has noted:

How can Apple compete with Google in the market as defined by the Commission when Apple allows only itself to use its operating system only on devices that Apple itself manufactures?

The EU then invents a series of claims regarding the lack of competition with Apple:

  • end user purchasing decisions are influenced by a variety of factors (such as hardware features or device brand), which are independent from the mobile operating system;

It is not obvious that this is evidence of a lack of competition. A better explanation is that the EU’s narrow definition of the market is defective. In fact, one could easily draw the opposite conclusion of that drawn by the Commission: the fact that purchasing decisions are driven by various factors suggests that there is substantial competition, with phone manufacturers seeking to design phones that offer a range of features, on a number of dimensions, to best capture diverse consumer preferences. They are able to do this in large part precisely because consumers are able to rely upon a generally similar operating system and continued access to the apps that they have downloaded. As Tim Cook likes to remind his investors, Apple is quite successful at targeting “Android switchers” to switch to iOS.

 

  • Apple devices are typically priced higher than Android devices and may therefore not be accessible to a large part of the Android device user base;

 

And yet, in the first quarter of 2018, Apple phones accounted for five of the top ten selling smartphones worldwide. Meanwhile, several competing phones, including the fifth and sixth best-sellers, Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and S9+, sell for similar prices to the most expensive iPhones. And a refurbished iPhone 6 can be had for less than $150.

 

  • Android device users face switching costs when switching to Apple devices, such as losing their apps, data and contacts, and having to learn how to use a new operating system;

 

This is, of course, true for any system switch. And yet the growing market share of Apple phones suggests that some users are willing to part with those sunk costs. Moreover, the increasing predominance of cloud-based and cross-platform apps, as well as Apple’s own “Move to iOS” Android app (which facilitates the transfer of users’ data from Android to iOS), means that the costs of switching border on trivial. As mentioned above, Tim Cook certainly believes in “Android switchers.”

 

  • even if end users were to switch from Android to Apple devices, this would have limited impact on Google’s core business. That’s because Google Search is set as the default search engine on Apple devices and Apple users are therefore likely to continue using Google Search for their queries.

 

This is perhaps the most bizarre objection of them all. The fact that Apple chooses to install Google search as the default demonstrates that consumers prefer that system over others. Indeed, this highlights a fundamental problem with the Commission’s own rationale, As Akman notes:

It is interesting that the case appears to concern a dominant undertaking leveraging its dominance from a market in which it is dominant (Google Play Store) into another market in which it is also dominant (internet search). As far as this author is aware, most (if not all?) cases of tying in the EU to date concerned tying where the dominant undertaking leveraged its dominance in one market to distort or eliminate competition in an otherwise competitive market.

Conclusion

As the foregoing demonstrates, the EC’s decision is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and evolution of the market for smartphones and associated applications. The statement by Commissioner Vestager quoted above — that “What would serve competition is to have more players” — belies this misunderstanding and highlights the erroneous assumptions underpinning the Commission’s analysis, which is wedded to a theory of market competition that was long ago thrown out by economists.

And, thankfully, it appears that the FTC Chairman is aware of at least some of the flaws in the EC’s conclusions.

Google will undoubtedly appeal the Commission’s decision. For the sakes of the millions of European consumers who rely on Android-based phones and the millions of software developers who provide Android apps, let’s hope that they succeed.

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.

Fair use’s fatal conceit

Geoffrey Manne —  21 February 2017

My colleague, Neil Turkewitz, begins his fine post for Fair Use Week (read: crashing Fair Use Week) by noting that

Many of the organizations celebrating fair use would have you believe, because it suits their analysis, that copyright protection and the public interest are diametrically opposed. This is merely a rhetorical device, and is a complete fallacy.

If I weren’t a recovering law professor, I would just end there: that about sums it up, and “the rest is commentary,” as they say. Alas….  

All else equal, creators would like as many people to license their works as possible; there’s no inherent incompatibility between “incentives and access” (which is just another version of the fallacious “copyright protection versus the public interest” trope). Everybody wants as much access as possible. Sure, consumers want to pay as little as possible for it, and creators want to be paid as much as possible. That’s a conflict, and at the margin it can seem like a conflict between access and incentives. But it’s not a fundamental, philosophical, and irreconcilable difference — it’s the last 15 minutes of negotiation before the contract is signed.

Reframing what amounts to a fundamental agreement into a pitched battle for society’s soul is indeed a purely rhetorical device — and a mendacious one, at that.

The devil is in the details, of course, and there are still disputes on the margin, as I said. But it helps to know what they’re really about, and why they are so far from the fanciful debates the copyright scolds wish we were having.

First, price is, in fact, a big deal. For the creative industries it can be the difference between, say, making one movie or a hundred, and for artists is can be the difference between earning a livelihood writing songs or packing it in for a desk job.

But despite their occasional lip service to the existence of trade-offs, many “fair-users” see price — i.e., licensing agreements — as nothing less than a threat to social welfare. After all, the logic runs, if copies can be made at (essentially) zero marginal cost, a positive price is just extortion. They say, “more access!,” but they don’t mean, “more access at an agreed-upon price;” they mean “zero-price access, and nothing less.” These aren’t the same thing, and when “fair use” is a stand-in for “zero-price use,” fair-users moving the goalposts — and being disingenuous about it.

The other, related problem, of course, is piracy. Sometimes rightsholders’ objections to the expansion of fair use are about limiting access. But typically that’s true only where fine-tuned contracting isn’t feasible, and where the only realistic choice they’re given is between no access for some people, and pervasive (and often unstoppable) piracy. There are any number of instances where rightsholders have no realistic prospect of efficiently negotiating licensing terms and receiving compensation, and would welcome greater access to their works even without a license — as long as the result isn’t also (or only) excessive piracy. The key thing is that, in such cases, opposition to fair use isn’t opposition to reasonable access, even free access. It’s opposition to piracy.

Time-shifting with VCRs and space-shifting with portable mp3 players (to take two contentious historical examples) fall into this category (even if they are held up — as they often are — by the fair-users as totems of their fanciful battle ). At least at the time of the Sony and Diamond Rio cases, when there was really no feasible way to enforce licenses or charge differential prices for such uses, the choice rightsholders faced was effectively all-or-nothing, and they had to pick one. I’m pretty sure, all else equal, they would have supported such uses, even without licenses and differential compensation — except that the piracy risk was so significant that it swamped the likely benefits, tilting the scale toward “nothing” instead of “all.”

Again, the reality is that creators and rightsholders were confronted with a choice between two imperfect options; neither was likely “right,” and they went with the lesser evil. But one can’t infer from that constrained decision an inherent antipathy to fair use. Sadly, such decisions have to be made in the real world, not law reviews and EFF blog posts. As economists Benjamin Klein, Andres Lerner and Kevin Murphy put it regarding the Diamond Rio case:

[R]ather than representing an attempt by copyright-holders to increase their profits by controlling legally established “fair uses,”… the obvious record-company motivation is to reduce the illegal piracy that is encouraged by the technology. Eliminating a “fair use” [more accurately, “opposing an expansion of fair use” -ed.] is not a benefit to the record companies; it is an unfortunate cost they have to bear to solve the much larger problem of infringing uses. The record companies face competitive pressure to avoid these costs by developing technologies that distinguish infringing from non-infringing copying.

This last point is important, too. Fair-users don’t like technological protection measures, either, even if they actually facilitate licensing and broader access to copyrighted content. But that really just helps to reveal the poverty of their position. They should welcome technology that expands access, even if it also means that it enables rightsholders to fine-tune their licenses and charge a positive price. Put differently: Why do they hate Spotify!?

I’m just hazarding a guess here, but I suspect that the antipathy to technological solutions goes well beyond the short-term limits on some current use of content that copyright minimalists think shouldn’t be limited. If technology, instead of fair use, is truly determinative of the extent of zero-price access, then their ability to seriously influence (read: rein in) the scope of copyright is diminished. Fair use is amorphous. They can bring cases, they can lobby Congress, they can pen strongly worded blog posts, and they can stage protests. But they can’t do much to stop technological progress. Of course, technology does at least as much to limit the enforceability of licenses and create new situations where zero-price access is the norm. But still, R&D is a lot harder than PR.

What’s more, if technology were truly determinative, it would frequently mean that former fair uses could become infringing at some point (or vice versa, of course). Frankly, there’s no reason for time-shifting of TV content to continue to be considered a fair use today. We now have the technology to both enable time shifting and to efficiently license content for the purpose, charge a differential price for it, and enforce the terms. In fact, all of that is so pervasive today that most users do pay for time-shifting technologies, under license terms that presumably define the scope of their right to do so; they just may not have read the contract. Where time-shifting as a fair use rears its ugly head today is in debates over new, infringing technology where, in truth, the fair use argument is really a malleable pretext to advocate for a restriction on the scope of copyright (e.g., Aereo).

In any case, as the success of business models like Spotify and Netflix (to say nothing of Comcast’s X1 interface and new Xfinity Stream app) attest, technology has enabled users to legitimately engage in what was once conceivable seemingly only under fair use. Yes, at a price — one that millions of people are willing to pay. It is surely the case that rightsholders’ licensing of technologies like these have made content more accessible, to more people, and with higher-quality service, than a regime of expansive unlicensed use could ever have done.

At the same time, let’s not forget that, often, even when they could efficiently distribute content only at a positive price, creators offer up scads of content for free, in myriad ways. Sure, the objective is to maximize revenue overall by increasing exposure, price discriminating, or enhancing the quality of paid-for content in some way — but so what? More content is more content, and easier access is easier access. All of that uncompensated distribution isn’t rightsholders nodding toward the copyright scolds’ arguments; it’s perfectly consistent with licensing. Obviously, the vast majority of music, for example, is listened-to subject to license agreements, not because of fair use exceptions or rightsholders’ largesse.

For the vast majority of creators, users and uses, licensed access works, and gets us massive amounts of content and near ubiquitous access. The fair use disputes we do have aren’t really about ensuring broad access; that’s already happening. Rather, those disputes are either niggling over the relatively few ambiguous margins on the one hand, or, on the other, fighting the fair-users’ manufactured, existential fight over whether copyright exceptions will subsume the rule. The former is to be expected: Copyright boundaries will always be imperfect, and courts will always be asked to make the close calls. The latter, however, is simply a drain on resources that could be used to create more content, improve its quality, distribute it more broadly, or lower prices.

Copyright law has always been, and always will be, operating in the shadow of technology — technology both for distribution and novel uses, as well as for pirating content. The irony is that, as digital distribution expands, it has dramatically increased the risk of piracy, even as copyright minimalists argue that the low costs of digital access justify a more expansive interpretation of fair use — which would, in turn, further increase the risk of piracy.

Creators’ opposition to this expansion has nothing to do with opposition to broad access to content, and everything to do with ensuring that piracy doesn’t overwhelm their ability to get paid, and to produce content in the first place.

Even were fair use to somehow disappear tomorrow, there would be more and higher-quality content, available to more people in more places, than ever before. But creators have no interest in seeing fair use disappear. What they do have is an interest in is licensing their content as broadly as possible when doing so is efficient, and in minimizing piracy. Sometimes legitimate fair-use questions get caught in the middle. We could and should have a reasonable debate over the precise contours of fair use in such cases. But the false dichotomy of creators against users makes that extremely difficult. Until the disingenuous rhetoric is clawed back, we’re stuck with needless fights that don’t benefit either users or creators — although they do benefit the policy scolds, academics, wonks and businesses that foment them.

Over the weekend, Senator Al Franken and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn issued an impassioned statement calling for the FCC to thwart the use of mandatory arbitration clauses in ISPs’ consumer service agreements — starting with a ban on mandatory arbitration of privacy claims in the Chairman’s proposed privacy rules. Unfortunately, their call to arms rests upon a number of inaccurate or weak claims. Before the Commissioners vote on the proposed privacy rules later this week, they should carefully consider whether consumers would actually be served by such a ban.

FCC regulations can’t override congressional policy favoring arbitration

To begin with, it is firmly cemented in Supreme Court precedent that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) “establishes ‘a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements.’” As the Court recently held:

[The FAA] reflects the overarching principle that arbitration is a matter of contract…. [C]ourts must “rigorously enforce” arbitration agreements according to their terms…. That holds true for claims that allege a violation of a federal statute, unless the FAA’s mandate has been “overridden by a contrary congressional command.”

For better or for worse, that’s where the law stands, and it is the exclusive province of Congress — not the FCC — to change it. Yet nothing in the Communications Act (to say nothing of the privacy provisions in Section 222 of the Act) constitutes a “contrary congressional command.”

And perhaps that’s for good reason. In enacting the statute, Congress didn’t demonstrate the same pervasive hostility toward companies and their relationships with consumers that has characterized the way this FCC has chosen to enforce the Act. As Commissioner O’Rielly noted in dissenting from the privacy NPRM:

I was also alarmed to see the Commission acting on issues that should be completely outside the scope of this proceeding and its jurisdiction. For example, the Commission seeks comment on prohibiting carriers from including mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts with their customers. Here again, the Commission assumes that consumers don’t understand the choices they are making and is willing to impose needless costs on companies by mandating how they do business.

If the FCC were to adopt a provision prohibiting arbitration clauses in its privacy rules, it would conflict with the FAA — and the FAA would win. Along the way, however, it would create a thorny uncertainty for both companies and consumers seeking to enforce their contracts.  

The evidence suggests that arbitration is pro-consumer

But the lack of legal authority isn’t the only problem with the effort to shoehorn an anti-arbitration bias into the Commission’s privacy rules: It’s also bad policy.

In its initial broadband privacy NPRM, the Commission said this about mandatory arbitration:

In the 2015 Open Internet Order, we agreed with the observation that “mandatory arbitration, in particular, may more frequently benefit the party with more resources and more understanding of the dispute procedure, and therefore should not be adopted.” We further discussed how arbitration can create an asymmetrical relationship between large corporations that are repeat players in the arbitration system and individual customers who have fewer resources and less experience. Just as customers should not be forced to agree to binding arbitration and surrender their right to their day in court in order to obtain broadband Internet access service, they should not have to do so in order to protect their private information conveyed through that service.

The Commission may have “agreed with the cited observations about arbitration, but that doesn’t make those views accurate. As one legal scholar has noted, summarizing the empirical data on the effects of arbitration:

[M]ost of the methodologically sound empirical research does not validate the criticisms of arbitration. To give just one example, [employment] arbitration generally produces higher win rates and higher awards for employees than litigation.

* * *

In sum, by most measures — raw win rates, comparative win rates, some comparative recoveries and some comparative recoveries relative to amounts claimed — arbitration generally produces better results for claimants [than does litigation].

A comprehensive, empirical study by Northwestern Law’s Searle Center on AAA (American Arbitration Association) cases found much the same thing, noting in particular that

  • Consumer claimants in arbitration incur average arbitration fees of only about $100 to arbitrate small (under $10,000) claims, and $200 for larger claims (up to $75,000).
  • Consumer claimants also win attorneys’ fees in over 60% of the cases in which they seek them.
  • On average, consumer arbitrations are resolved in under 7 months.
  • Consumers win some relief in more than 50% of cases they arbitrate…
  • And they do almost exactly as well in cases brought against “repeat-player” business.

In short, it’s extremely difficult to sustain arguments suggesting that arbitration is tilted against consumers relative to litigation.

(Upper) class actions: Benefitting attorneys — and very few others

But it isn’t just any litigation that Clyburn and Franken seek to preserve; rather, they are focused on class actions:

If you believe that you’ve been wronged, you could take your service provider to court. But you’d have to find a lawyer willing to take on a multi-national telecom provider over a few hundred bucks. And even if you won the case, you’d likely pay more in legal fees than you’d recover in the verdict.

The only feasible way for you as a customer to hold that corporation accountable would be to band together with other customers who had been similarly wronged, building a case substantial enough to be worth the cost—and to dissuade that big corporation from continuing to rip its customers off.

While — of course — litigation plays an important role in redressing consumer wrongs, class actions frequently don’t confer upon class members anything close to the imagined benefits that plaintiffs’ lawyers and their congressional enablers claim. According to a 2013 report on recent class actions by the law firm, Mayer Brown LLP, for example:

  • “In [the] entire data set, not one of the class actions ended in a final judgment on the merits for the plaintiffs. And none of the class actions went to trial, either before a judge or a jury.” (Emphasis in original).
  • “The vast majority of cases produced no benefits to most members of the putative class.”
  • “For those cases that do settle, there is often little or no benefit for class members. What is more, few class members ever even see those paltry benefits — particularly in consumer class actions.”
  • “The bottom line: The hard evidence shows that class actions do not provide class members with anything close to the benefits claimed by their proponents, although they can (and do) enrich attorneys.”

Similarly, a CFPB study of consumer finance arbitration and litigation between 2008 and 2012 seems to indicate that the class action settlements and judgments it studied resulted in anemic relief to class members, at best. The CFPB tries to disguise the results with large, aggregated and heavily caveated numbers (never once actually indicating what the average payouts per person were) that seem impressive. But in the only hard numbers it provides (concerning four classes that ended up settling in 2013), promised relief amounted to under $23 each (comprising both cash and in-kind payment) if every class member claimed against the award. Back-of-the-envelope calculations based on the rest of the data in the report suggest that result was typical.

Furthermore, the average time to settlement of the cases the CFPB looked at was almost 2 years. And somewhere between 24% and 37% involved a non-class settlement — meaning class members received absolutely nothing at all because the named plaintiff personally took a settlement.

By contrast, according to the Searle Center study, the average award in the consumer-initiated arbitrations it studied (admittedly, involving cases with a broader range of claims) was almost $20,000, and the average time to resolution was less than 7 months.

To be sure, class action litigation has been an important part of our system of justice. But, as Arthur Miller — a legal pioneer who helped author the rules that make class actions viable — himself acknowledged, they are hardly a panacea:

I believe that in the 50 years we have had this rule, that there are certain class actions that never should have been brought, admitted; that we have burdened our judiciary, yes. But we’ve had a lot of good stuff done. We really have.

The good that has been done, according to Professor Miller, relates in large part to the civil rights violations of the 50’s and 60’s, which the class action rules were designed to mitigate:

Dozens and dozens and dozens of communities were desegregated because of the class action. You even see desegregation decisions in my old town of Boston where they desegregated the school system. That was because of a class action.

It’s hard to see how Franken and Clyburn’s concern for redress of “a mysterious 99-cent fee… appearing on your broadband bill” really comes anywhere close to the civil rights violations that spawned the class action rules. Particularly given the increasingly pervasive role of the FCC, FTC, and other consumer protection agencies in addressing and deterring consumer harms (to say nothing of arbitration itself), it is manifestly unclear why costly, protracted litigation that infrequently benefits anyone other than trial attorneys should be deemed so essential.

“Empowering the 21st century [trial attorney]”

Nevertheless, Commissioner Clyburn and Senator Franken echo the privacy NPRM’s faulty concerns about arbitration clauses that restrict consumers’ ability to litigate in court:

If you’re prohibited from using our legal system to get justice when you’re wronged, what’s to protect you from being wronged in the first place?

Well, what do they think the FCC is — chopped liver?

Hardly. In fact, it’s a little surprising to see Commissioner Clyburn (who sits on a Commission that proudly proclaims that “[p]rotecting consumers is part of [its] DNA”) and Senator Franken (among Congress’ most vocal proponents of the FCC’s claimed consumer protection mission) asserting that the only protection for consumers from ISPs’ supposed depredations is the cumbersome litigation process.

In fact, of course, the FCC has claimed for itself the mantle of consumer protector, aimed at “Empowering the 21st Century Consumer.” But nowhere does the agency identify “promoting and preserving the rights of consumers to litigate” among its tools of consumer empowerment (nor should it). There is more than a bit of irony in a federal regulator — a commissioner of an agency charged with making sure, among other things, that corporations comply with the law — claiming that, without class actions, consumers are powerless in the face of bad corporate conduct.

Moreover, even if it were true (it’s not) that arbitration clauses tend to restrict redress of consumer complaints, effective consumer protection would still not necessarily be furthered by banning such clauses in the Commission’s new privacy rules.

The FCC’s contemplated privacy regulations are poised to introduce a wholly new and untested regulatory regime with (at best) uncertain consequences for consumers. Given the risk of consumer harm resulting from the imposition of this new regime, as well as the corollary risk of its excessive enforcement by complainants seeking to test or push the boundaries of new rules, an agency truly concerned with consumer protection would tread carefully. Perhaps, if the rules were enacted without an arbitration ban, it would turn out that companies would mandate arbitration (though this result is by no means certain, of course). And perhaps arbitration and agency enforcement alone would turn out to be insufficient to effectively enforce the rules. But given the very real costs to consumers of excessive, frivolous or potentially abusive litigation, cabining the litigation risk somewhat — even if at first it meant the regime were tilted slightly too much against enforcement — would be the sensible, cautious and pro-consumer place to start.

____

Whether rooted in a desire to “protect” consumers or not, the FCC’s adoption of a rule prohibiting mandatory arbitration clauses to address privacy complaints in ISP consumer service agreements would impermissibly contravene the FAA. As the Court has made clear, such a provision would “‘stand[] as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress’ embodied in the Federal Arbitration Act.” And not only would such a rule tend to clog the courts in contravention of the FAA’s objectives, it would do so without apparent benefit to consumers. Even if such a rule wouldn’t effectively be invalidated by the FAA, the Commission should firmly reject it anyway: A rule that operates primarily to enrich class action attorneys at the expense of their clients has no place in an agency charged with protecting the public interest.