Archives For most favored nations clause

As Judge (and Professor) Frank Easterbrook famously explained over three decades ago (in his seminal article The Limits of Antitrust), antitrust is an inherently limited body of law. In crafting and enforcing liability rules to combat market power and encourage competition, courts and regulators may err in two directions: they may wrongly forbid output-enhancing behavior or wrongly fail to condemn output-reducing conduct. The social losses from false convictions and false acquittals, taken together, comprise antitrust’s “error costs.” While it may be possible to reduce error costs by making liability rules more nuanced, added complexity raises the “decision costs” incurred by business planners (ex ante) and adjudicators (ex post). In light of all these costs, Easterbrook advocated an approach that would optimize antitrust’s effectiveness: interpret and enforce the antitrust laws so as to minimize the sum of error and decision costs.

Judge Easterbrook’s approach is consistent with the widely accepted proposition that antitrust enforcement should be viewed as an exercise in consumer welfare maximization. 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.  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. This is achieved by employing an error cost (decision theoretic) framework, which seeks to minimize the sum of the costs attributable to false positives, false negatives, antitrust administrative costs, and disincentive costs imposed on third parties (the latter may also be viewed as a subset of false positives).

Perhaps the most glaring flaw of the Second Circuit’s 2015 decision in United States v. Apple Inc., is the failure to pay heed to error costs and the limits of antitrust as an administrative system.

In condemning Apple’s vertical contracts as illegal per se, because they allegedly were used to facilitate a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy among publishers, the Second Circuit ignored the vast literature on the efficiencies associated with vertical restraints. (They also failed to heed Supreme Court precedent, see here). Moreover, the vertical restraints employed by Apple in this case, such as most-favored nation (MFN) clauses, clearly had substantial efficiency potential – they were particularly well-suited to facilitate Apple’s competition with Amazon’s established e-book platform and thereby enhance competition in the emerging e-book market. (This theme is explained and developed here). Accordingly, the Second Circuit’s failure to examine the restraints in detail under the antitrust rule of reason created a strong potential for wrongly condemning procompetitive behavior (false positives). In contrast, the likelihood of wrongly failing to condemn anticompetitive practices (false negatives) under a rule of reason assessment in this case (involving a substantial record, an emerging dynamic market, and the use of typically efficient vertical contracts by a new entrant) would have been comparatively small. Furthermore, the Second Circuit’s per se condemnation of vertical restraints in Apple creates substantial disincentive costs, by discouraging other businesses from developing innovative distribution models employing vertical restraints in emerging markets.

In sum, the Second Circuit’s approach is plainly at odds with a welfare-enhancing, decision theoretic approach to antitrust. It also runs counter to the general thrust of the Supreme Court’s recent antitrust jurisprudence, which implicitly has adopted an error cost framework (see the article by Thom Lambert and me, here) with a focus on false positives. As the late Justice Scalia pithily explained, “[m]istaken inferences and the resulting false condemnations are ‘especially costly, because they chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.’” Verizon v. Trinko (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp.). It would be fitting tribute to the great Justice for the Supreme Court to heed this teaching and grant certiorari in the Apple case.

On balance the Second Circuit was right to apply the antitrust laws to Apple.

Right now the Supreme Court has before it a petition for Certiorari, brought by Apple, Inc., which asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Second Circuit. That decision found per se illegality under the Sherman Act, for Apple’s efforts to promote cooperation among a group of six major publishers, who desperately sought to break Amazon’s dominant position in the ebook market. At that time, Amazon employed a wholesale model for ebooks under which it bought them for a fixed price, but could sell them for whatever price it wanted, including sales at below cost of popular books treated as loss leaders. These sales particularly frustrated publishers because of the extra pressure they placed on the sale of hard cover and paper back books. That problem disappeared under the agency relationship model that Apple pioneered. Now the publishers would set the prices for the sale of their own volumes, and then pay Apple a fixed commission for its services in selling the ebooks.

This agency model gives the publishers a price freedom, but it would fall apart at the seams if Amazon could continue to sell ebooks under the wholesale model at prices below those that were set by publishers for ebook sales by Apple. To deal with this complication, Apple insisted that all publishers that sold to it through the agency model require Amazon to purchase the ebooks on the same terms. Apple also insisted that it receive a most-favored-nation clause so that it would not find itself undercut either by Amazon or by a new entrant that also used the agency model.

There is little question that Apple would be in fine shape if it had proposed this model to each of the publishers separately, for then its action would be a form of ordinary competition of the sort permitted to every new entrant. Competition often takes place in terms of price, where the terms of the contracts are standard between competitors. That common state of affairs makes it easier for customers to compare prices with each other, and—sigh—for competitors to collude with each other. But without some evidence of collusion, the price parallelism should be regarded as per se legal, as it is routinely today. The decision to adopt a new form of pricing makes cross-product comparisons more difficult, but, by the same token, it offers a wider range of choice to customers. Again there is nothing in the antitrust laws that does, or should, prevent nonprice competition, including a radical shift in business model.

As it happened, once Apple imposed its model, the older wholesale model gave way, because it could not survive anywhere once the agency model was introduced. In the short run, this tectonic market shift has resulted in an increase in the price of ebooks and a corresponding decline in revenue, which is just what one would expect when prices are raised. It is therefore difficult to defend the case on the ground that it produces, in either the long or the short run, lower prices that benefit consumers. But it is difficult in the abstract to find that higher prices themselves are the hallmark of an antitrust violation.

At root the main considerations should be structural. What makes the ebooks case so hard is that it arises at the cross-currents of two different antitrust approaches. The general view is that horizontal arrangements are per se illegal, which means that it is necessary to show some very specific justifications to defeat a charge under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. No such arguments — like the need to share information in order to operate in a network industry — present themselves here. Yet by the same token, the general view on vertical arrangements is that they offer efficiencies by reducing the bottlenecks that could be created if players at different levels of the distribution system seek to hold out for a larger share of the gain, thereby creating a serious double marginalization problem. In these cases, the modern view is that vertical arrangements are in general governed by rule of reason considerations. The question now is what happens where there is an inevitable confluence of the vertical and horizontal arrangements.

In preparing for this short column, I read the petition for certiorari by Apple, and the two separate briefs prepared in support of Apple by a set of law professors and economists respectively. Both urge that this case be evaluated under a rule of reason, not the per se rule that applies to horizontal price-fixing. Both these briefs are excellently done. But I confess that my current view is that they miss the central difficulty in this case. Any argument for a rule of reason has to be able to identify in advance the gains and losses that justify some kind of balancing act. That standard can be met in merger cases, where under the standard Williamson model one is asked to compare the social gains from lower costs with the social losses from increased competition. These are not decisions that can be made well within the judicial context, so a separate administrative procedure is set up under the premerger notification program established under the 1976 Hart-Scott-Rodino Act. The administrative setting makes it possible to collect the needed information, and to decide whether to allow the merger to go through, and if so, subject to what conditions on matters such as partial divestiture to avoid excessive concentration in relevant submarkets. The task is always messy, but the rule-of-thumb that five-to-four is generally fine and three-to-two is not, shows that it is possible to hone in on an answer in most cases, but not all.

But what is troublesome in Apple is that, though the briefs are very persuasive in arguing that mixed vertical and horizontal arrangements might fit better into a rule of reason framework, they do not indicate what metric the parties should use to determine, once the case is remanded, how the rule of reason plays out. That is to say, there is no clear theory of what should be traded off against what. To put the point another way, none of these briefs argues that the transaction in question should be regarded as per se legal, so my fear is this: all the relevant information is already made available in the case, so that, on remand, the only task left to be done is to decide whether Apple should be protected because its own conduct disrupts a near-monopoly position that is held by Amazon. But that argument is at least a little dicey given that no one could argue that Amazon has obtained its dominant position by any unlawful means, which undercuts (but does not destroy) the argument that cutting Amazon down to size is necessarily a good thing. It might not be if the willingness to allow a collusive collateral attack orchestrated by Apple would reduce ex ante the gains from innovation that Amazon surely created when it pioneered its own wholesale ebook model. Facilitation is often regarded as criminal and tortious conduct in other areas. So at the moment, and subject to revision, my view is that the Second Circuit got it right. The vertical assist to the horizontal arrangement increased the odds of the horizontal deal that was illegal, and probably shares in that taint.

In making this judgment I think of the decision in Fashion Originators’ Guild of America, Inc. v. FTC (FOGA) which did address the question of whether the defendants could resist a cease and desist order by the FTC, which had attacked as per se illegal a decision of the manufacturers whose comparative advantage was to act as sellers of original and distinctive designs that at the time received neither patent nor copyright protection. The defendants entered into a limited form of collusion whereby they agreed not to sell to any retailer who carried a knock-off of their creations. They did not extend their cooperative activity into any other area. In essence, they sought only to protect what they regarded as their intellectual property. Justice Black held that the case did not fall outside the per se Section 1 prohibition even though it could easily have been argued that these decisions were undertaken to protect the labor that these individuals had placed in their creations. In addition, the opinion concluded with this passage:

even if copying were an acknowledged tort under the law of every state, that situation would not justify petitioners in combining together to regulate and restrain interstate commerce in violation of federal law. And for these same reasons, the principles declared in International News Service v. Associated Press, 248 U.S. 215, [1918], cannot serve to legalize petitioners’ unlawful combination.

I think that the first sentence here is wrong if self-help is cheaper and more reliable in dealing with the threat. But Justice Black flatly rejected the INS decision, which in my view represents a highly sophisticated effort to develop a tort of unfair competition between direct competitors. It reaches the correct result by defining the protected right narrowly—publication for one news cycle only. That move guards against misappropriation when it matters most, but by design prevents the creation of any long-term monopoly on anything like the copyright model. The limited and proportionate response in FOGA, however, did not cut any ice.

In addition, the defendants in FOGA have a respectable case on the merits that some protection of these design elements should be provided under either the patent or copyright laws, precisely because the appropriation is so difficult to guard against by any other means. Probably, the statutory length of such protection should not be as long as that offered by standard patents and copyrights, but that matter could be settled by statute. Accordingly, if antitrust law turns a blind eye to these justifications, is the nonspecific concern raised, but not spelled out, by Apple any stronger?

Finally, what should be the bottom line? It is worth noting that in FOGA the government was seeking only an injunction against the conduct, without asking for any damages. In Apple, the co-plaintiff states are seeking damage awards. Perhaps the simplest solution is to allow the injunction and to deny the damages, in part because of the clear complexity of the underlying legal issues. In this case, King Solomon might be wise to split the baby.

By William Kolasky

In my view, the Second Circuit’s decision in Apple e-Books, if not reversed by the Supreme Court, threatens to undo a half century of progress in reforming antitrust doctrine. In decision after decision, from White Motors through Leegin and Actavis, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held—in cases involving both horizontal and vertical restraints—that the only test for whether an agreement can be found per se unlawful under Section 1 is whether it is “a naked [restraint] of trade with no purpose except stifling competition,” or whether it is instead “ancillary to the legitimate and competitive purposes” of a business association. Dagher. The cases in which the Court has consistently applied this test read like a litany of antitrust decisions we all now study in law school: White Motors, Topco, GTE Sylvania, Professional Engineers, BMI, Maricopa, NCAA, Business Electronics, ARCO, California Dental, Dagher, Leegin, American Needle, and, most recently, Actavis. Significantly, more than two-thirds of these cases involved horizontal, not vertical restraints.

In these decisions, the Court has also repeatedly warned that this test cannot be applied by simply asking whether the defendants “have literally ‘fixed’ a ‘price,” or otherwise agreed not to compete. Warning that “[l]iteralness is overly simplistic and often overbroad,” the Court insisted in BMI that courts instead focus on “the effect and, because it tends to show effect…, on the purpose of the practice” to determine whether “the practice facially appears to be one that would always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output… or instead one designed to ‘increase economic efficiency and render markets more, rather than less, competitive.”

In applying this test the Court has also repeatedly emphasized that a court should classify an alleged restraint—whether horizontal or vertical—as per se unlawful “only after considerable experience” with the particular restraint at issue. In addition, the Court has repeatedly emphasized that all that is necessary for a restraint to escape per se illegality is that there be a “plausible” procompetitive purpose behind it. See, e.g., Cal Dental; Business Electronics; Northwest Wholesale Stationers.

By focusing so much attention in their cert. papers on whether the agreements between Apple and the publishers should be characterized as “vertical” or “horizontal,” both Apple and the DOJ seem to have lost sight of the fundamental teachings of this long line of Supreme Court decisions—namely, that even if an agreement is horizontal, it can be found to be per se unlawful only if it is a naked agreement that, on its face, serves no purpose other than to restrict competition and restrain output. This is particularly important where, as in this case, the alleged agreements have both horizontal and vertical elements. In such cases, the right question is not whether the agreements can be labeled a “hub-and-spoke conspiracy,” but instead what the nature and purpose of those agreements were.

In this case, the nature of the arrangement between Apple and the publishers by which they all appointed Apple as their common sales agent is not fundamentally different from the an agreement among a group of competitors to appoint a joint sales agent. While such an arrangement can, in some circumstances, be used to facilitate cartel behavior, it can also serve legitimate pro-competitive purposes by enabling those competitors to market their goods or services more efficiently. The courts and antitrust enforcement agencies have, therefore, recognized—ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in Appalachian Coals—that these joint sales arrangements must generally be evaluated under the rule of reason and cannot in all instances be condemned as per se unlawful. See, e.g., FTC/DOJ, Competitor Collaboration Guidelines(For those of you who remember the criticisms that used to be directed at that decision by your antitrust professor in law school, I urge you to read Sheldon Kimmel’s excellent revisionist article, How and Why the Per Se Rule Against Price Fixing Went Wrong, showing that the Court’s holding was perfectly consistent with its more recent rulings in BMI and its progeny.

Viewing this as an agreement among the publishers to appoint Apple as their common sales agent might have helped the lower courts to have focused on what should have been the key issues in the case. The first is whether the agency arrangement was a “naked” agreement to “restrict competition and decrease output,” or could “plausibly” have been intended to serve other legitimate pro-competitive business purposes. The second is whether, if so, the restraints that were part of this arrangement—such as price caps and most-favored nation clauses—were ancillary to those legitimate purposes.

Based on the record as I read it, it appears to me that the answers to these two questions are obvious, and that they compel the conclusion that this common sales agent arrangement could not be classified as per se unlawful, but would need to be evaluated under a full-blown rule of reason analysis. Let me address each issue in turn.

Was the common sales agent arrangement between Apple and the five publishers a naked agreement to fix prices and restrict output?

Neither the lower courts nor the parties in their cert papers address this key issue in any detail, choosing instead to spend page after page debating whether the agreement between Apple and the publishers was horizontal or vertical. Fortunately, the amicus briefs that were filed in support of Apple’s cert. petition by ICLE and by a group of antitrust economists do address the issue at considerable length.

Those briefs make a convincing argument that the common sale agent arrangements between the publishers and Apple were designed to serve at least two pro-competitive purposes. The first was to introduce greater competition into the downstream market for the distribution of e-books by ending Amazon’s below-cost pricing of e-books at the retail level. The second was to give the publishers greater control over the downstream pricing of their e-books in order to prevent below-cost pricing of e-books from cannibalizing the sales of their print books.

The common sale agent arrangement served to introduce more competition into the downstream market for the distribution of e-books

This one is easy. No one disputes that before Apple entered, Amazon dominated the downstream market for e-books with a 90% market share, giving it a virtual monopoly. Hopefully, few, if any, would dispute that Amazon’s loss-leader strategy of selling e-books at well below cost served to entrench its near monopoly position in that market. It is easy to understand why publishers of e-books would not want to allow Amazon’s monopoly to continue, leaving them with only a sole distributor for their products.

The record below makes it clear that Apple did not believe it could profitably enter the e-book market so long as Amazon continued to maintain its first-mover advantage by selling e-books below cost. Apple and the publishers therefore had a common interest in moving from the existing wholesale model of e-book distribution to a new agency model under which the publishers, not Amazon, would control the retail pricing of e-books and could set those prices at a level that would enable other competitors, such as Apple, to enter. That seems pro-competitive to me.

The record also makes it clear that this objective could not be accomplished through a simple vertical agency agreement between Apple and one or two individual publishers. In order to enter successfully, Apple needed a critical mass of titles, which it could have only by securing the agreement of most of the leading publishers to appoint it as their common sale agent. Apple, therefore, had a legitimate pro-competitive business reason to facilitate—or, as the Second Circuit charged, “orchestrate” —agreements among the publishers to switch to an agency model and to appoint Apple as their common non-exclusive agent for the sale of their e-books.

The common sales agent arrangement gave the publishers control over the retail prices of e-books, protecting them from harms to their businesses that could otherwise be caused by below-cost pricing by a single dominant retailer.

The Second Circuit and DOJ both make much of the fact that the publishers wanted to control the retail prices of e-books in order to raise those prices above the level set by Amazon’s loss-leader pricing strategy. They both seem to believe that this alone is enough to characterize their conduct as a “naked price fixing scheme.” But it is not. As the Supreme Court held in Leegin, resale price maintenance can be pro-competitive even if it leads to higher prices if it is designed promote competition by creating a more efficient and competitive distribution system.

As Areeda and Hovenkamp teach in their treatise, Fundamentals of Antitrust Law, the same principle applies to agreements among a group of horizontal competitors to appoint a single sales agent. Those competitors will frequently “have to agree with each other that they will not accept less than a certain minimum price, or sometimes may even have to agree on the entire price schedule,” and these prices may sometimes be higher than the prices at which they were previously selling the products individually. See Areeda & Hovenkamp (2015 Supp.), at 19:31-32. But even if these agreements result in an increase in price, they argue that it should not be found illegal if the effect on output is positive. Their argument is supported by the language in BMI, in which the Court focused on the effect of a restraint on output, not price, in describing what was necessary to classify an alleged restraint as a per se illegal naked price-fixing agreement.

Here, although the district court found that prices went up and output went down in the short run after the publishers switched from their wholesale model to an agency model, these immediate, short-term effects do not necessarily show that the switch to the new agency model might not, over the long-term, have resulted in an increase in output. DOJ concedes that since Apple’s entry, e-book sales have grown exponentially, but speculates that this growth might have occurred even if Amazon had continued to maintain its monopoly position in the retail sale of e-books. As someone who reads e-books on my iPad, I doubt that, but this is the type of issue that can only be resolved through a full rule-of-reason analysis, not through the application of a conclusive presumption of illegality under the per se doctrine.

Here, as the amicus briefs argue, there are several ways Amazon’s loss-leader pricing strategy could have depressed the output of both e-book and print books long-term. First, of course, once its monopoly was fully entrenched, Amazon could have sought to recoup its losses by raising its e-book prices above a competitive level. Second, if instead Amazon continued to cannibalize print sales through below-cost e-book pricing, publishers might have been forced to reduce the royalties they pay authors, giving those authors less reason to continue writing, thus reducing the output of all books. Again, these are the types of issues that require a full rule of reason analysis, not summary condemnation under the per se doctrine.

Were the price caps and most-favored nation clauses ancillary restraints that may have been reasonably necessary to the legitimate pro-competitive purposes of the common sales agent arrangement?

The ancillary nature of the terms that were included in Apple’s agency agreements with the publishers, and which the publishers may have agreed among themselves to accept, is equally easy to show.

The price caps on which Apple insisted were obviously designed to protect it from opportunistic behavior by the publishers in charging higher prices for their e-books than what Apple felt the market would accept, thereby preventing it from selling a sufficient volume of e-books to make its entry successful. Such opportunistic behavior by the publishers could also have made it harder to convince consumers to buy Apple’s new iPad, the success of which was critical to its future.

The most favored nation clauses on which Apple insisted, and which the publishers may also have agreed among themselves to accept, were likewise arguably necessary to protect Apple from the risk of having to compete against an established competitor offering lower prices than it could, thereby impeding its successful entry and damaging its goodwill with consumers.

In both cases, these are classic and legitimate reasons for ancillary restraints. Whether or not these particular restraints were reasonably necessary to Apple’s successful entry is a question that could only be decided on the basis of a full rule of reason analysis. All that is needed to avoid per se condemnation is that there be a plausible argument that they were, and that, again, should be something that no one could dispute.

* * *

Given the way the case was litigated, I recognize that it may be difficult to introduce at the Supreme Court level a whole new way of looking at the facts of the case. But if the Court does grant cert., I would hope that Apple and the amici supporting it would try to refocus the Court’s attention away from a sterile argument over whether the restraints in question were vertical or horizontal, and to focus it instead on whether they were a “naked” attempt to fix prices and restrict output or were instead ancillary to a pro-competitive business relationship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of the United States supporting Apple’s petition for certiorari in its e-books antitrust case. ICLE’s brief was signed by sixteen distinguished scholars of law, economics and public policy, including an Economics Nobel Laureate, a former FTC Commissioner, ten PhD economists and ten professors of law (see the complete list, below).

Background

Earlier this year a divided panel of the Second Circuit ruled that Apple “orchestrated a conspiracy among [five major book] publishers to raise ebook prices… in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act.” Significantly, the court ruled that Apple’s conduct constituted a per se unlawful horizontal price-fixing conspiracy, meaning that the procompetitive benefits of Apple’s entry into the e-books market was irrelevant to the liability determination.

Apple filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court seeking review of the ruling on the question of

Whether vertical conduct by a disruptive market entrant, aimed at securing suppliers for a new retail platform, should be condemned as per se illegal under Section 1 of the Sherman Act, rather than analyzed under the rule of reason, because such vertical activity also had the alleged effect of facilitating horizontal collusion among the suppliers.

Summary of Amicus Brief

The Second Circuit’s ruling is in direct conflict with the Supreme Court’s 2007 Leegin decision, and creates a circuit split with the Third Circuit based on that court’s Toledo Mack ruling. ICLE’s brief urges the Court to review the case in order to resolve the significant uncertainty created by the Second Circuit’s ruling, particularly for the multi-sided platform companies that epitomize the “New Economy.”

As ICLE’s brief discusses, the Second Circuit committed several important errors in its ruling:

First, As the Supreme Court held in Leegin, condemnation under the per se rule is appropriate “only for conduct that would always or almost always tend to restrict competition” and “only after courts have had considerable experience with the type of restraint at issue.” Neither is true in this case. Businesses often employ one or more forms of vertical restraints to make entry viable, and the Court has blessed such conduct, categorically holding in Leegin that “[v]ertical price restraints are to be judged according to the rule of reason.”

Furthermore, the conduct at issue in this case — the use of “Most-Favored Nation Clauses” in Apple’s contracts with the publishers and its adoption of the so-called “agency model” for e-book pricing — have never been reviewed by the courts in a setting like this one, let alone found to “always or almost always tend to restrict competition.” There is no support in the case law or economic literature for the proposition that agency models or MFNs used to facilitate entry by new competitors in platform markets like this one are anticompetitive.

Second, the negative consequences of the court’s ruling will be particularly acute for modern, high-technology sectors of the economy, where entrepreneurs planning to deploy new business models will now face exactly the sort of artificial deterrents that the Court condemned in Trinko: “Mistaken inferences and the resulting false condemnations are especially costly, because they chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.” Absent review by the Supreme Court to correct the Second Circuit’s error, the result will be less-vigorous competition and a reduction in consumer welfare.

This case involves vertical conduct essentially indistinguishable from conduct that the Supreme Court has held to be subject to the rule of reason. But under the Second Circuit’s approach, the adoption of these sorts of efficient vertical restraints could be challenged as a per se unlawful effort to “facilitate” horizontal price fixing, significantly deterring their use. The lower court thus ignored the Supreme Court’s admonishment not to apply the antitrust laws in a way that makes the use of a particular business model “more attractive based on the per se rule” rather than on “real market conditions.”

Third, the court based its decision that per se review was appropriate largely on the fact that e-book prices increased following Apple’s entry into the market. But, contrary to the court’s suggestion, it has long been settled that such price increases do not make conduct per se unlawful. In fact, the Supreme Court has held that the per se rule is inappropriate where, as here, “prices can be increased in the course of promoting procompetitive effects.”  

Competition occurs on many dimensions other than just price; higher prices alone don’t necessarily suggest decreased competition or anticompetitive effects. Instead, higher prices may accompany welfare-enhancing competition on the merits, resulting in greater investment in product quality, reputation, innovation or distribution mechanisms.

The Second Circuit presumed that Amazon’s e-book prices before Apple’s entry were competitive, and thus that the price increases were anticompetitive. But there is no support in the record for that presumption, and it is not compelled by economic reasoning. In fact, it is at least as likely that the change in Amazon’s prices reflected the fact that Amazon’s business model pre-entry resulted in artificially low prices, and that the price increases following Apple’s entry were the product of a more competitive market.

Previous commentary on the case

For my previous writing and commentary on the the case, see:

  • “The Second Circuit’s Apple e-books decision: Debating the merits and the meaning,” American Bar Association debate with Fiona Scott-Morton, DOJ Chief Economist during the Apple trial, and Mark Ryan, the DOJ’s lead litigator in the case, recording here
  • Why I think the Apple e-books antitrust decision will (or at least should) be overturned, Truth on the Market, here
  • Why I think the government will have a tough time winning the Apple e-books antitrust case, Truth on the Market, here
  • The procompetitive story that could undermine the DOJ’s e-books antitrust case against Apple, Truth on the Market, here
  • How Apple can defeat the DOJ’s e-book antitrust suit, Forbes, here
  • The US e-books case against Apple: The procompetitive story, special issue of Concurrences on “E-books and the Boundaries of Antitrust,” here
  • Amazon vs. Macmillan: It’s all about control, Truth on the Market, here

Other TOTM authors have also weighed in. See, e.g.:

  • The Second Circuit Misapplies the Per Se Rule in U.S. v. Apple, Alden Abbott, here
  • The Apple E-Book Kerfuffle Meets Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics, Josh Wright, here
  • Apple and Amazon E-Book Most Favored Nation Clauses, Josh Wright, here

Amicus Signatories

  • Babette E. Boliek, Associate Professor of Law, Pepperdine University School of Law
  • Henry N. Butler, Dean and Professor of Law, George Mason University School of Law
  • Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Assistant Professor of Law, Nebraska College of Law
  • Stan Liebowitz, Ashbel Smith Professor of Economics, School of Management, University of Texas-Dallas
  • Geoffrey A. Manne, Executive Director, International Center for Law & Economics
  • Scott E. Masten, Professor of Business Economics & Public Policy, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, The University of Michigan
  • Alan J. Meese, Ball Professor of Law, William & Mary Law School
  • Thomas D. Morgan, Professor Emeritus, George Washington University Law School
  • David S. Olson, Associate Professor of Law, Boston College Law School
  • Joanna Shepherd, Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law
  • Vernon L. Smith, George L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics,  The George L. Argyros School of Business and Economics and Professor of Economics and Law, Dale E. Fowler School of Law, Chapman University
  • Michael E. Sykuta, Associate Professor, Division of Applied Social Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia
  • Alex Tabarrok, Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center and Professor of Economics, George Mason University
  • David J. Teece, Thomas W. Tusher Professor in Global Business and Director, Center for Global Strategy and Governance, Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley
  • Alexander Volokh, Associate Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law
  • Joshua D. Wright, Professor of Law, George Mason University School of Law

On Thursday I will be participating in an ABA panel discussion on the Apple e-books case, along with Mark Ryan (former DOJ attorney) and Fiona Scott-Morton (former DOJ economist), both of whom were key members of the DOJ team that brought the case. Details are below. Judging from the prep call, it should be a spirited discussion!

Readers looking for background on the case (as well as my own views — decidedly in opposition to those of the DOJ) can find my previous commentary on the case and some of the issues involved here:

Other TOTM authors have also weighed in. See, e.g.:

DETAILS:

ABA Section of Antitrust Law

Federal Civil abaantitrustEnforcement Committee, Joint Conduct, Unilateral Conduct, and Media & Tech Committees Present:

“The 2d Cir.’s Apple E-Books decision: Debating the merits and the meaning”

July 16, 2015
12:00 noon to 1:30 pm Eastern / 9:00 am to 10:30 am Pacific

On June 30, the Second Circuit affirmed DOJ’s trial victory over Apple in the Ebooks Case. The three-judge panel fractured in an interesting way: two judges affirmed the finding that Apple’s role in a “hub and spokes” conspiracy was unlawful per se; one judge also would have found a rule-of-reason violation; and the dissent — stating Apple had a “vertical” position and was challenging the leading seller’s “monopoly” — would have found no liability at all. What is the reasoning and precedent of the decision? Is “marketplace vigilantism” (the concurring judge’s phrase) ever justified? Our panel — which includes the former DOJ head of litigation involved in the case — will debate the issues.

Moderator

  • Ken Ewing, Steptoe & Johnson LLP

Panelists

  • Geoff Manne, International Center for Law & Economics
  • Fiona Scott Morton, Yale School of Management
  • Mark Ryan, Mayer Brown LLP

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In its June 30 decision in United States v. Apple Inc., a three-judge Second Circuit panel departed from sound antitrust reasoning in holding that Apple’s e-book distribution agreement with various publishers was illegal per se. Judge Dennis Jacobs’ thoughtful dissent, which substantially informs the following discussion of this case, is worth a close read.

In 2009, Apple sought to enter the retail market for e-books, as it prepared to launch its first iPad tablet. Apple, however, confronted an e-book monopolist, Amazon (possessor of a 90 percent e-book market share), that was effectively excluding new entrants by offering bestsellers at a loss through its popular Kindle device ($9.99, a price below what Amazon was paying publishers for the e-book book rights). In order to effectively enter the market without incurring a loss itself (by meeting Amazon’s price) or impairing its brand (by charging more than Amazon), Apple approached publishers that dealt with Amazon and offered itself as a competing e-book buyer, subject to the publishers agreeing to a new distribution model that would lower barriers to entry into retail e-book sales. The new publishing model was implemented by three sets of contract terms Apple asked the publishers to accept – agency pricing, tiered price caps, and a most-favored-nation (MFN) clause. (I refer the reader to the full panel majority opinion for a detailed discussion of these clauses.) None of those terms, standing alone, is illegal. Although the publishers were unhappy about Amazon’s below-cost pricing for e-books, no one publisher alone could counter Amazon. Five of the six largest U.S. publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster) agreed to Apple’s terms and jointly convinced Amazon to adopt agency pricing. Apple also encouraged other publishers to implement agency pricing in their contracts with other retailers. The barrier to entry thus removed, Apple entered the retail market as a formidable competitor. Amazon’s retail e-book market share fell, and today stands at 60 percent.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and 31 states sued Apple and the five publishers for conspiring in unreasonable restraint of trade under Sherman Act § 1. The publishers settled (signing consent decrees which prohibited them for a period from restricting e-book retailers’ ability to set prices), but Apple proceeded to a bench trial. A federal district court held that Apple’s conduct as a vertical enabler of a horizontal price conspiracy among the publishers was a per se violation of § 1, and that (in any event) Apple’s conduct would also violate § 1 under the antitrust rule of reason.   A majority of the Second Circuit panel affirmed on the ground of per se liability, without having to reach the rule of reason question.

Judge Jacobs’ dissent argued that Apple’s conduct was not per se illegal and also passed muster under the rule of reason. He pointed to three major errors in the majority’s opinion. First, the holding that the vertical enabler of a horizontal price fixing is in per se violation of the antitrust laws conflicts with the Supreme Court’s teaching (in overturning the per se prohibition on resale price maintenance) that a vertical agreement designed to facilitate a horizontal cartel “would need to be held unlawful under the rule of reason.” Leegin Creative Leather Prods, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. 551 U.S. 877, 893 (2007) (emphasis added).   Second, the district court failed to recognize that Apple’s role as a vertical player differentiated it from the publishers – it should have considered Apple as a competitor on the distinct horizontal plane of retailers, where Apple competed with Amazon (and with smaller player such as Barnes & Noble). Third, assessed under the rule of reason, Apple’s conduct was “overwhelmingly” procompetitive; Apple was a major potential competitor in a market dominated by a 90 percent monopoly, and was “justifiably unwilling” to enter a market on terms that would assure a loss on sales or exact a toll on its reputation.

Judge Jacobs’ analysis is on point. The Supreme Court’s wise reluctance to condemn any purely vertical contractual restraint under the per se rule reflects a sound understanding that vertical restraints have almost always been found to be procompetitive or competitively neutral. Indeed, vertical agreements that are designed to facilitate entry into an important market dominated by one firm, such as the ones at issue in the Apple case, are especially bad candidates for summary condemnation. Thus, the majority’s decision to apply the per se rule to Apple’s contracts appears particularly out of touch with both scholarship and marketplace realities.

More generally, as Professor Herbert Hovenkamp (the author of the leading antitrust treatise) and other scholars have emphasized, well-grounded antitrust analysis involves a certain amount of preliminary evaluation of a restraint seen in its relevant factual context, before a “per se” or “rule of reason” label is applied. (In the case of truly “naked” secret hard core cartels, which DOJ prosecutes under criminal law, the per se label may be applied immediately.) The Apple panel majority panel botched this analytic step, in failing to even consider that Apple’s restraints could enhance retail competition with Amazon.

The panel majority also appeared overly fixated on the fact that some near-term e-book retail prices rose above Amazon’s previous below cost levels in the wake of Apple’s contracts, without noting the longer term positive implications for the competitive process of new e-book entry. Below-cost prices are not a feature of durable efficient competition, and in this case may well have been a temporary measure aimed at discouraging entry. In any event, what counts in measuring consumer welfare is not short term price, but whether expanded output is being promoted by a business arrangement – a key factor that the majority notably failed to address. (It appears highly probable that the fall in Amazon’s e-book retail market share, and the invigoration of e-book competition, have generated output and welfare levels higher than those that would have prevailed had Amazon maintained its monopoly. This is bolstered by Apple’s showing, which the majority does not deny, that in the two years following the “conspiracy” among Apple and the publishers, prices across the e-book market as a whole fell slightly and total output increased.)

Finally, Judge Jacobs’ dissent provides strong arguments in favor of upholding Apple’s conduct under the rule of reason. As the dissent stresses, removal of barriers to entry that shield a monopolist, as in this case, is in line with the procompetitive goals of antitrust law. Another procompetitive effect is the encouragement of innovation (manifested by the enablement of e-book reading with the cutting-edge functions of the iPad), a hallmark and benefit of competition. Another benefit was that the elimination of below-cost pricing helped raise authors’ royalties. Furthermore, in the words of the dissent, any welfare reductions due to Apple’s vertical restrictions are “no more than a slight offset to the competitive benefits that now pervade the relevant market.” (Admittedly that comment is a speculative observation, but in my view very likely a well-founded one.) Finally, as the dissent points out, the district court’s findings demonstrate that Apple could not have entered and competed effectively using other strategies, such as wholesale contracts involving below-cost pricing (like Amazon’s) or higher prices. Summing things up, the dissent explains that “Apple took steps to compete with a monopolist and open the market to more entrants, generating only minor competitive restraints in the process. Its conduct was eminently reasonable; no one has suggested a viable alternative.” In closing, even if one believes a more fulsome application of the rule of reason is called for before reaching the dissent’s conclusion, the dissent does a good job in highlighting the key considerations at play here – considerations that the majority utterly failed to address.

In sum, the Second Circuit panel majority wore jurisprudential blinders in its Apple decision. Like the mesmerized audience at a magic show, it focused in blinkered fashion on a magician’s sleight of hand (the one-dimensional characterization of certain uniform contractual terms), while not paying attention to what was really going on (the impressive welfare-enhancing invigoration of competition in e-book retailing). In other words, the majority decision showed a naïve preference for quick and superficial characterizations of conduct at the expense of a nuanced assessment of the broader competitive context. Perhaps the Second Circuit en banc will have the opportunity to correct the panel’s erroneous understanding of per se and rule of reason analysis. Even better, the Supreme Court may wish to step in to ensure that its thoughtful development of antitrust doctrine in recent years – focused on actual effects and economic efficiency, not on superficial condemnatory labels that ignore marketplace benefits – not be undermined.

On July 10 a federal judge ruled that Apple violated antitrust law by conspiring to raise prices of e-books when it negotiated deals with five major publishers. I’ve written on the case and the issues involved in it several times, including here, here, here and here. The most recent of these was titled, “Why I think the government will have a tough time winning the Apple e-books antitrust case.” I’m hedging my bets with the title this time, but it’s fairly clear to me that the court got this case wrong.

The predominant sentiment among pundits following the decision seems to be approval (among authors, however, the response to the suit has been decidedly different). Supporters believe it will lower e-book prices and instigate a shift in the electronic publishing industry toward some more-preferred business model. This sort of reasoning is dangerous and inconsistent with principled, restrained antitrust. Neither the government nor its supporting commentators should use, or applaud the use, of antitrust to impose the government’s (or anyone else’s) preferred business model on industry. And lower prices in the short run, while often an indication of increased competition, are not, by themselves, sufficient to determine that a business model is efficient in the long run.

For example, in a recent article, Mark Lemley is quoted supporting the outcome, noting that it may spur a shift toward his preferred model of electronic publishing:

It also makes no sense that publishers, not authors, capture most of the revenue from e-books, when they do very little of the work. I understand why publishers are reluctant to give up their old business model, but if they want to survive in the digital world, it’s time to make some changes.

As noted, there is no basis for using antitrust enforcement to coerce an industry to shift to a particular distribution of profits simply because “it’s time to make some changes.” Lemley’s characterization of the market’s dynamics is also seriously lacking in economic grounding (and the Authors Guild response to the suit linked above suggests the same). The economics of entrepreneurship has an impressive intellectual pedigree that began with Frank Knight, was further developed by Joseph Schumpeter, Israel Kirzner and Harold Demsetz, among others, and continues to today with its inclusion as a factor of production. (On the development of this tradition and especially Harold Demsetz’s important contribution to it, see here). The implicit claim that publishers’ and authors’ interests (to say nothing of consumers’ interests) are simply at odds, and that the “right” distribution of profits would favor authors over publishers based on the amount of “work” they do is economically baseless. Although it is a common claim, reflecting either idiosyncratic preferences or ignorance about the role of content publishers and distributors in the e-book marketplace and the role of entrepreneurship more generally, it is nonetheless mistaken and has no place in a consumer-welfare-based assessment of the market or antitrust intervention in it.

It’s also utterly unclear how the antitrust suit would do anything to change the relative distribution of profits between publishers and authors. In fact, the availability of direct publishing (offered by both Amazon and Apple) is the most likely disruptor of that dynamic, and authors could only be helped by an increase in competition among platforms—in other words, by Apple’s successful entry into the market.

Apple entered the e-books market as a relatively small upstart battling a dominant incumbent. That it did so by offering publishers (suppliers) attractive terms to deal with its new iBookstore is no different than a new competitor in any industry offering novel products or loss-leader prices to attract customers and build market share. When new entry then induces an industry-wide shift toward the new entrants’ products, prices or business model it’s usually called “competition,” and lauded as the aim of properly functioning markets. The same should be true here.

Despite the court’s claim that

there is overwhelming evidence that the Publisher Defendants joined with each other in a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy,

that evidence is actually extremely weak. What is unclear is why the publishers would need a conspiracy when they rarely compete against each other directly.

The court states that

To protect their then-existing business model, the Publisher Defendants agreed to raise the prices of e-books by taking control of retail pricing.

But despite the use of the antitrust trigger-words, “agreed to raise prices,” this agreement is not remotely clear, and rests entirely on circumstantial evidence (more on this later). None of the evidence suggests actual agreement over price, and none of the evidence demonstrates conclusively any real incentive for the publishers to reach “agreement” at all. In actuality, publishers rarely compete against each other directly (least of all on price); instead, for each individual publisher (and really for each individual title), the most relevant competition for this case is between the e-book version of a particular title and its physical counterpart. In this situation it should matter little to any particular e-book’s sales whether every other e-book in the world is sold at the same price or even a lower price.

While the opinion asserts that each publisher

could also expect to lose substantial sales if they unilaterally raised the prices of their own e-books and none of their competitors followed suit,

it also states that

there is no evidence that the Publisher Defendants have ever competed with each other on price. To the contrary, several of the Publishers’ CEOs explained that they have not competed with each other on that basis.

These statements are difficult to reconcile, but the evidence supports the latter statement, not the former.

The only explanation offered by the court for the publishers’ alleged need for concerted action is an ambiguous claim that Amazon would capitulate in shifting to the agency model only if every publisher pressured it to do so simultaneously. The court claims that

if the Publisher Defendants were going to take control of e-book pricing and move the price point above $9.99, they needed to act collectively; any other course would leave an individual Publisher vulnerable to retaliation from Amazon.

But it’s not clear why this would be so.

On the one hand, if Apple really were the electronic publishing juggernaut implied by this antitrust action, this concern should be minimal: Publishers wouldn’t need Amazon and could simply sell their e-books through Apple’s iBookstore. In this case the threat of even any individual publisher’s “retaliation” against Amazon (decamping to Apple) would suffice to shift relative bargaining power between the publishers and Amazon, and concerted action wouldn’t be necessary. On this theory, the fact that it was only after Apple’s entry that Amazon agreed to shift to the agency model—a fact cited by the court many times to support its conclusions—is utterly unremarkable.

That prices may have shifted as well is equally unremarkable: The agency model puts pricing decisions in publishers’ hands (who, as I’ve previously discussed, have very different incentives than Amazon) where before Amazon had control over prices. Moreover, even when Apple presented evidence that average e-book prices actually fell after its entrance into the market, the court demanded that Apple prove a causal relationship between its entrance and lower overall prices. (Even the DOJ’s own evidence shows, at worst, little change in price, despite its heated claims to the contrary.) But the burden of proof in such cases rests with the government to prove that Apple caused prices to rise, not for Apple to explain why they fell.

On the other hand, if the loss of Amazon as a retail outlet were really so significant for publishers, Apple’s ability to function as the lynchpin of the alleged conspiracy is seriously questionable. While the agency model coupled with the persistence of $9.99 pricing by Amazon would seem to mean reduced revenue for publishers on each book sold through Apple’s store, the relatively trivial number of Apple sales compared with Amazon’s, particularly at the outset, would be of little concern to publishers, and thus to Amazon. In this case it is difficult to believe that publishers would threaten their relationships with Amazon for the sake of preserving the return on their newly negotiated contracts with Apple (and even more difficult to believe that Amazon would capitulate), and the claimed coordinating effects of the MFN provisions is difficult to sustain.

The story with respect to Amazon is questionable for another reason. While the court claims that the publishers’ concern with Amazon’s $9.99 pricing was its effect on physical book sales, it is extremely hard to believe that somehow $12.99 for the electronic version of a $30 (or, often, even more expensive) physical book would be significantly less damaging to physical book sales. Moreover, the evidence put forth by the DOJ and found persuasive by the court all pointed to e-book revenues alone, not physical book sales, as the issue of most concern to publishers (thus, for example, Steve Jobs wrote to HarperCollins’ CEO that it could “[k]eep going with Amazon at $9.99. You will make a bit more money in the short term, but in the medium term Amazon will tell you they will be paying you 70% of $9.99. They have shareholders too.”).

Moreover, as Joshua Gans points out, the agency model that Amazon may have entered into with the publishers would have been particularly unhelpful in ensuring monopoly returns for the publishers (we don’t know the exact terms of their contracts, however, and there are reports from trial that Amazon’s terms were “identical” to Apple’s):

While Apple gave publishers a 70 percent share of book sales and the ability to set their own price, Amazon offered a menu. If you price below $9.99 for a book, Amazon’s share will be 70 percent but if you price above $10, Amazon only returns 35 percent to the publisher. Amazon also charged publishers a delivery fee based on the book’s size (in kb).

Thus publishers could, of course, raise prices to $12.99 in both Apple’s and Amazon’s e-book stores, but, if this effective price cap applied, doing so would result in a significant loss of revenue from Amazon. In other words, the court’s claim—that, having entered into MFNs with Apple, the publishers then had to move Amazon to the agency model to ensure that they didn’t end up being forced by the MFNs to sell books via Apple (on the less-attractive agency terms) at Amazon’s $9.99—is far-fetched. To the extent that raising Amazon’s prices above $10 may have cut royalties almost in half, the MFNs with Apple would be extremely unlikely to have such a powerful effect. But, as noted above, because of the relative sales volumes involved the same dynamic would have applied even under identical terms.

It is true, of course, that Apple cares about price differences between books sold through its iBookstore and the same titles sold through other electronic retailers—and thus it imposed MFN clauses on the publishers. But this is not anticompetitive. In fact, by facilitating Apple’s entry, the MFN clauses plainly increased competition by introducing a new competitor to the industry. What’s more, the terms of Apple’s agreements with the publishers exactly mirrors the terms it uses for apps and music sold through the iTunes store, as well. And as Gordon Crovitz noted:

As this column reported when the case was brought last year, Apple executive Eddy Cue in 2011 turned down my effort to negotiate different terms for apps by news publishers by telling me: “I don’t think you understand. We can’t treat newspapers or magazines any differently than we treat FarmVille.” His point was clear: The 30% revenue-share model is how Apple does business with everyone. It is not, as the government alleges, a scheme Apple concocted to fix prices with book publishers.

Another important error in the case — and, unfortunately, it is one to which Apple’s lawyers acceded—is the treatment of “trade e-books” as the relevant market. For antitrust purposes, there is no generalized e-book (or physical book, for that matter) market. As noted above, the court itself acknowledged that the publishers “have [n]ever competed with each other on price.” The price of Stephen King’s latest novel likely has, at best, a trivial effect on sales of…nearly every other fiction book published, and probably zero effect on sales of non-fiction books.

This is important because the court’s opinion turns on mostly circumstantial evidence of an alleged conspiracy among publishers to raise prices and on the role of concerted action in protecting publishers from being “undercut” by their competitors. But in a world where publishers don’t compete on price (and where the alleged agreement would have reduced the publishers’ revenues in the short run and done little if anything to shore up physical book sales in the long run), it is far-fetched to interpret this evidence as the court does—to infer a conspiracy to raise prices.

Meanwhile, by restricting itself to consideration of competitive effects in the e-book market alone, the court also inappropriately and without commentary dispenses with Apple’s pro-competitive justifications for its conduct. Put simply, Apple contends that its entry into the e-book retail and reader markets was facilitated by its contract terms. But the court ignores these arguments.

On the one hand, it does so because it treats this as a per se case, in which procompetitive effects are irrelevant. But the court’s determination to treat this as a per se case—with its lengthy recitation of relevant legal precedent and only cursory application of precedent to the facts of the case—is suspect. As I have noted before:

What would [justify per se treatment] is if the publishers engaged in concerted action to negotiate these more-favorable terms with other publishers, and what would be problematic for Apple is if its agreement with each publisher facilitated that collusion.

But I don’t see any persuasive evidence that the terms of Apple’s deals with each publisher did any such thing. For MFNs to perform the function alleged by the DOJ it seems to me that the MFNs would have to contribute to the alleged agreement between the publishers, just as the actions of the vertical co-conspirators in Interstate Circuit and Toys-R-Us were alleged to facilitate coordination. But neither the agency agreement itself nor the MFN and price cap terms in the contracts in any way affected the publishers’ incentive to compete with each other. Nor, as noted above, did they require any individual publisher to cause its books to be sold at higher prices through other distributors.

Even if it is true that the publishers participated in a per se illegal horizontal price fixing scheme (and despite the court’s assertion that this is beyond dispute, the evidence is not nearly so clear as the court suggests), Apple’s unique role in that alleged scheme can’t be analyzed in the same fashion. As Leegin notes (and the court in this case quotes), for conduct to merit per se treatment it must “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” But the conduct at issue here—whether somehow coupled with a horizontal price fixing scheme or not—doesn’t meet this standard. The agency model, the MFN terms in the publishers’ contracts with Apple, and the efforts by Apple to secure broad participation by the largest publishers before entering the market are all potentially—if not likely—procompetitive. And output seems to have increased substantially following Apple’s entry into the e-book retail market.

In short, I continue to believe that the facts of this case do not merit per se treatment, and there is a good chance the court’s opinion could be overturned on this ground. For this reason, its rejection of Apple’s procompetitive arguments was inappropriate.

But even in its brief “even under the rule of reason…” analysis, the court improperly rejects Apple’s procompetitive arguments. The court’s consideration of these arguments is basically summed up here:

The pro-competitive effects to which Apple has pointed, including its launch of the iBookstore, the technical novelties of the iPad, and the evolution of digital publishing more generally, are phenomena that are independent of the Agreements and therefore do not demonstrate any pro-competitive effects flowing from the Agreements.

But this is factually inaccurate. Apple has claimed that its entry—and thus at minimum its development and marketing of the iPad as an e-reader and its creation of the iBookstore—were indeed functions of the contract terms and the simultaneous acceptance by the largest publishers of these terms.

The court goes on to assert that, even if the claimed pro-competitive effect was the introduction of competition into the e-book market,

Apple demanded, as a precondition of its entry into the market, that it would not have to compete with Amazon on price. Thus, from the consumer’s perspective — a not unimportant perspective in the field of antitrust — the arrival of the iBookstore brought less price competition and higher prices.

In making this claim the court effectively—and improperly—condemns MFNs to per se illegal status. In doing so the court claims that its opinion’s reach is not so broad:

this Court has not found that any of these [agency agreements, MFN clauses, etc.]…components of Apple’s entry into the market were wrongful, either alone or in combination. What was wrongful was the use of those components to facilitate a conspiracy with the Publisher Defendants”

But the claimed absence of retail price competition that accompanied Apple’s entry is entirely a function of the MFN clauses: Whether at $9.99 or $12.99, the MFN clauses were what ensured that Apple’s and Amazon’s prices would be the same, and disclaimer or not they are swept in to the court’s holding.

This effective condemnation of MFN clauses, while plainly sought by the DOJ, is simply inappropriate as a matter of law. In order to condemn Apple’s conduct under the per se rule, the court relies on the operation of the MFNs in allegedly reducing competition and raising prices to make its case. But that these do not “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and reduce output” is clear. While the DOJ may view such terms otherwise (more on this here and here), courts have not done so, and Leegin’s holding that such vertical restraints are to be assessed under the rule of reason still holds. The court’s use of the per se standard and its refusal to consider Apple’s claimed pro-competitive effects are improper.

Thus I (somewhat more cautiously this time…) suggest that the court’s decision may be overturned on appeal, and I most certainly think it should be. It seems plainly troubling as a matter of economics, and inappropriate as a matter of law.

Trial begins today in the Southern District of New York in United States v. Apple (the Apple e-books case), which I discussed previously here. Along with co-author Will Rinehart, I also contributed an  essay to a discussion of the case in Concurrences (alongside contributions from Jon Jacobson and Mark Powell, among others).

Much of my writing on the case has essentially addressed it as a rule of reason case, assessing the economic merits of Apple’s contract terms. And as I mention in this Reuters article from yesterday on the case, one of the key issues in this analysis (and one of the government’s key targets in the case) is the use of MFN clauses.

But as Josh pointed out in a blog post last year,

my hunch is that if the case is litigated its legacy will be as an “agreement” case rather than what it contributes to rule of reason analysis.  In other words, if Apple gets to the rule of reason, the DOJ (like most plaintiffs in rule of reason cases) are likely to lose — especially in light of at least preliminary evidence of dramatic increases in output.  The critical question — I suspect — will be about proof of an actual naked price fixing agreement among publishers and Apple, and as a legal matter, what evidence is sufficient to establish that agreement for the purposes of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

He’s likely correct, of course, that a central question at trial will be whether or not this is a per se or rule of reason case, and that trial will focus in significant part on the sufficiency of the evidence of agreement. But because this determination will turn considerably on the purpose and function of the MFN and price cap terms in Apple’s agreements with the publishers, I don’t think there should (or will) be much difference. Nor do I think the government should (or will) win.

Before the court can apply the per se rule, it must satisfy itself that the conduct at issue “would always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” But it is not true as a matter of economics — and certainly not true as a matter of law — that MFNs meet this standard.

After State Oil v. Kahn there can be no question about the rule of reason (if not per se legal) status of price caps. And as the Court noted in Leegin:

Resort to per se rules is confined to restraints, like those mentioned, “that would always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” To justify a per se prohibition a restraint must have “manifestly anticompetitive” effects, and “lack any redeeming virtue.

As a consequence, the per se rule is appropriate only after courts have had considerable experience with the type of restraint at issue, and only if courts can predict with confidence that it would be invalidated in all or almost all instances under the rule of reason. It should come as no surprise, then, that “we have expressed reluctance to adopt per se rules with regard to restraints imposed in the context of business relationships where the economic impact of certain practices is not immediately obvious.” And, as we have stated, a “departure from the rule-of-reason standard must be based upon demonstrable economic effect rather than . . . upon formalistic line drawing.”

After Leegin, all vertical non-price restraints, including MFNs, are assessed under the rule of reason.  Courts neither have “considerable experience” with MFNs, nor can they remotely “predict with confidence that they would be invalidated in all or almost all instances under the rule of reason.” As a recent article in Antitrust points out,

The DOJ and FTC have brought approximately ten cases over the last two decades challenging MFNs. Most of these cases involved the health care industry and all were resolved by consent judgments.

Even if the court does take a harder look at whether a per se rule should govern, however, as a practical matter there is not likely to be much difference between a “does this merit per se treatment” analysis and analysis of the facts under the rule of reason. As the Court pointed out in California Dental Association,

The truth is that our categories of analysis of anticompetitive effect are less fixed than terms like “per se,” “quick look,” and “rule of reason” tend to make them appear. We have recognized, for example, that “there is often no bright line separating per se from Rule of Reason analysis,” since “considerable inquiry into market conditions” may be required before the application of any so-called “per se” condemnation is justified. “[W]hether the ultimate finding is the product of a presumption or actual market analysis, the essential inquiry remains the same–whether or not the challenged restraint enhances competition.”

And as my former classmate Tom Nachbar points out in a recent article,

it’s hard to identity much relative simplicity in the per se rule. Indeed, the moniker “per se” has become somewhat misleading, as cases determining whether to apply the per se or rule of reason become as long as ones actually applying the rule of reason itself.

Of course that doesn’t end the analysis, and the government’s filings do all they can to sidestep the direct antitrust treatment of MFNs and instead assert that they (and other evidence alleged) permit the court to infer Apple’s participation as the coordinator of a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy among the publishers.

But as Apple argues in its filings,

The[ relevant] cases mandate an inquiry into the possibility that the challenged contract terms and negotiation approach were in Apple’s independent economic interests. The evidence is overwhelming—not just possible—that Apple acted for its own valid business reasons and not to “raise consumer prices market-wide.”…Plaintiffs ask this Court to infer Apple’s participation in a conspiracy from (1) its MFN and price cap terms and (2) negotiations with publishers.

* * *

What is obvious, however, is that Apple has not fixed prices with its competitors. What is remarkable is that the government seeks to impose grave legal consequences on an inherently pro-competitive act—entry—accomplished via agency, an MFN, and price caps, none of which is per se unlawful.

The government’s strenuous objection to Apple’s interpretation of the controlling Supreme Court authority, Monsanto v. Spray-Rite, notwithstanding, it’s difficult to see the MFN clauses as evidence of Apple’s participation in the publishers’ alleged conspiracy.

An important point supporting Apple’s argument here is that, unlike the “hubs” in the other “hub and spoke” conspiracies on which the DOJ bases its case, Apple has no significant leverage over the alleged co-conspirators, and thus no power to coordinate — let alone enforce — a price-fixing scheme. As Apple argues in its Opposition brief,

The only “power” Apple could wield over the publishers was the attractiveness of a business opportunity—hardly the “make or break” scenarios found in Interstate Circuit and [Toys-R-Us]. Far from capitulating to Apple’s requested core business terms, the publishers fought Apple tooth and nail and negotiated intensely to the very end, and the largest, Random House, declined.

And as Will and I note in our Concurrences article,

MFNs are essentially an important way of…offering some protection against publishers striking a deal with a competitor that leaves Apple forced to price its ebooks out of the market.

There is nothing, that we know of, in the MFNs or elsewhere in the agreements that requires the publishers to impose higher resale prices elsewhere, or prevents the publishers from selling through Apple at a lower price, if necessary. Most important, for Apple’s negotiated prices to dominate in the market it would have to enjoy market power – a condition, currently at least, that is exceedingly unlikely given its 10% share of the ebook market.

The point is that, even if everything the government alleges about the publishers’ price fixing scheme were true, it’s extremely difficult to see Apple as a co-conspirator in such a scheme. The Supreme Court’s holding in Monsanto stands for nothing if not the principle that courts may not infer a vertical party’s participation in a horizontal price-fixing scheme from the existence of otherwise-legal and -defensible interactions between the vertically related parties. Because MFNs have valid purposes outside the realm of price-fixing, they may not be converted into illegal conduct on Apple’s part simply because they might also “sharpen [a publisher’s] incentives” to try to raise prices elsewhere.

Remember, we are in a world where the requisite anticompetitive conduct can’t be simply the vertical restraint itself. Rather, we’re evaluating whether the vertical restraint was part of a broader anticompetitive scheme among the publishers. For the MFN clauses to be part of that alleged scheme they must have an identifiable place in the scheme.

First of all, it is unremarkable that Apple might offer terms to any individual publisher (or to all publishers independently) that might be more favorable to the publisher than terms it is getting elsewhere; that’s how a new entrant in Apple’s position attracts suppliers. It is likewise unremarkable that Apple would seek to impose terms (like the MFN) that would preserve its ability to offer a publisher’s books for the same price they are offered elsewhere (which is necessary because the agency agreements negotiated by Apple otherwise remove pricing authority from Apple and confer it on the publishers themselves). And finally it is unremarkable that each publisher would try to negotiate similarly favorable terms with other distributors (or, more accurately, continue to try: bargaining over distribution terms with other distributors hardly started only after the agreements were signed with Apple). What would be notable is if the publishers engaged in concerted action to negotiate these more-favorable terms with other publishers, and what would be problematic for Apple is if its agreement with each publisher facilitated that collusion.

But I don’t see any persuasive evidence that the terms of Apple’s deals with each publisher did any such thing. For MFNs to perform the function alleged by the DOJ it seems to me that the MFNs would have to contribute to the alleged agreement between the publishers, just as the actions of the vertical co-conspirators in Interstate Circuit and Toys-R-Us were alleged to facilitate coordination. But neither the agency agreement itself nor the MFN and price cap terms in the contracts in any way affected the publishers’ incentive to compete with each other. Nor, as noted above, did they require any individual publisher to cause its books to be sold at higher prices through other distributors.

On this latter point, the DOJ alleges that the MFNs “sharpen[ed publishers’] incentives” to raise prices:

If a retailer were allowed to remain on wholesale terms, and that retailer continued to price new release e-books at $9.99, the Publisher Defendant would be forced to lower the iBookstore price to match the $9.99 price

Not only does this say nothing about the incentives of the publishers to compete with each other on price (except that it may have increased that incentive by undermining the prevailing $9.99-for-all-books standard), it seems far-fetched to suggest that fear of having to lower prices for books sold in Apple’s relatively trivial corner of the market would have an apreciable effect on a publisher’s incentives to raise prices elsewhere. For what it’s worth, it also seems far-fetched to suggest that Apple’s motivation was to raise prices given that e-book sales generate only about .0005% of Apple’s total revenues.

Beyond this, the DOJ essentially argues that Apple coordinated agreement among the publishers to accept the terms being offered by Apple, with the intent and effect that this would lead to imposition by the publishers of similar terms (and higher prices) on other distributors. Perhaps, but it’s a stretch. And if it is true, it isn’t because of the MFN clauses. Moreover, it isn’t clear to me (maybe I’m missing some obvious controlling case law?) that agreement over the type of contract used amounts to an illegal horizontal agreement; arguably in this case, at least, it is closer to an ancillary restraint or  justified agreement (as in BMI, e.g.) than, say, a group boycott or bid rigging. In any case, if the DOJ has a case at all turning on this scenario, I think it will have to be based entirely on the alleged evidence of direct coordination (i.e., communications between Apple and publishers during dinners and phone calls) rather than the operation of the contract terms themselves.

In any case, it will be interesting to see how the trial unfolds.

Apple has filed its response to the DOJ Complaint in the e-books case.  Here is the first paragraph of the Answer:

The Government’s Complaint against Apple is fundamentally flawed as a matter of fact and law. Apple has not “conspired” with anyone, was not aware of any alleged “conspiracy” by others, and never “fixed prices.” Apple individually negotiated bilateral agreements with book publishers that allowed it to enter and compete in a new market segment – eBooks. The iBookstore offered its customers a new outstanding, innovative eBook reading experience, an expansion of categories and titles of eBooks, and competitive prices.

And the last paragraph of the Answer’s introduction:

The Supreme Court has made clear that the antitrust laws are not a vehicle for Government intervention in the economy to impose its view of the “best” competitive outcome, or the “optimal” means of competition, but rather to address anticompetitive conduct. Apple’s entry into eBook distribution is classic procompetitive conduct, and for Apple to be subject to hindsight legal attack for a business strategy well-recognized as perfectly proper sends the wrong message to the market, and will discourage competitive entry and innovation and harm consumers.

A theme that runs throughout the Answer is that the “pre-Apple” world of e-books was characterized by little or no competition and that the agency agreements were necessary for its entry, which in turn has resulted in a dramatic increase in output.  The Answer is available here.  While commentary has focused primarily upon the important question of the competitive effects of the move to the agency model, including Geoff’s post here, my hunch is that if the case is litigated its legacy will be as an “agreement” case rather than what it contributes to rule of reason analysis.  In other words, if Apple gets to the rule of reason, the DOJ (like most plaintiffs in rule of reason cases) are likely to lose — especially in light of at least preliminary evidence of dramatic increases in output.  The critical question — I suspect — will be about proof of an actual naked price fixing agreement among publishers and Apple, and as a legal matter, what evidence is sufficient to establish that agreement for the purposes of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.  The Complaint sets forth the evidence the DOJ purports to have on this score.  But my hunch — and it is no more than that — is that this portion of the case will prove more important than any battle between economic experts on the relevant competitive effects.

Did Apple conspire with e-book publishers to raise e-book prices?  That’s what DOJ argues in a lawsuit filed yesterday. But does that violate the antitrust laws?  Not necessarily—and even if it does, perhaps it shouldn’t.

Antitrust’s sole goal is maximizing consumer welfare.  While that generally means antitrust regulators should focus on lower prices, the situation is more complicated when we’re talking about markets for new products, where technologies for distribution and consumption are evolving rapidly along with business models.  In short, the so-called Agency pricing model Apple and publishers adopted may mean (and may not mean) higher e-book prices in the short run, but it also means more variability in pricing, and it might well have facilitated Apple’s entry into the market, increasing e-book retail competition and promoting innovation among e-book readers, while increasing funding for e-book content creators.

The procompetitive story goes something like the following.  (As always with antitrust, the question isn’t so much which model is better, but that no one really knows what the right model is—least of all antitrust regulators—and that, the more unclear the consumer welfare effects of a practice are, as in rapidly evolving markets, the more we should err on the side of restraint).

Apple versus Amazon

Apple–decidedly a hardware company–entered the e-book market as a device maker eager to attract consumers to its expensive iPad tablets by offering appealing media content.  In this it is the very opposite of Amazon, a general retailer that naturally moved into retailing digital content, and began selling hardware (Kindle readers) only as a way of getting consumers to embrace e-books.

The Kindle is essentially a one-trick pony (the latest Kindle notwithstanding), and its focus is on e-books.  By contrast, Apple’s platform (the iPad and, to a lesser degree, the iPhone) is a multi-use platform, offering Internet browsing, word processing, music, apps, and other products, of which books probably accounted–and still account–for a relatively small percentage of revenue.  Importantly, unlike Amazon, Apple has many options for promoting adoption of its platform—not least, the “sex appeal” of its famously glam products.  Without denigrating Amazon’s offerings, Amazon, by contrast, competes largely on the basis of its content, and its devices sell only as long as the content is attractive and attractively priced.

In essence, Apple’s iPad is a platform; Amazon’s Kindle is a book merchant wrapped up in a cool device.

What this means is that Apple, unlike Amazon, is far less interested in controlling content prices for books and other content; it hardly needs to control that lever to effectively market its platform, and it can easily rely on content providers’ self interest to ensure that enough content flows through its devices.

In other words, Apple is content to act as a typical platform would, acting as a conduit for others’ content, which the content owner controls.  Amazon surely has “platform” status in its sights, but reliant as it is on e-books, and nascent as that market is, it is not quite ready to act like a “pure” platform.  (For more on this, see my blog post from 2010).

The Agency Model

As it happens, publishers seem to prefer the Agency Model, as well, preferring to keep control over their content in this medium rather than selling it (as in the brick-and-mortar model) to a retailer like Amazon to price, market, promote and re-sell at will.  For the publishers, the Agency Model is essentially a form of resale price maintenance — ensuring that retailers who sell their products do not inefficiently discount prices.  (For a clear exposition of the procompetitive merits of RPM, see this article by Benjamin Klein).

(As a side note, I suspect that they may well be wrong to feel this way.  The inclination seems to stem from a fear of e-books’ threat to their traditional business model — a fear of technological evolution that can have catastrophic consequences (cf. Kodak, about which I wrote a few weeks ago).  But then content providers moving into digital media have been consistently woeful at understanding digital markets).

So the publishers strike a deal with Apple that gives the publishers control over pricing and Apple a cut (30%) of the profits.  Contrary to the DOJ’s claim in its complaint, this model happens to look exactly like Apple’s arrangement for apps and music, as well, right down to the same percentage Apple takes from sales.  This makes things easier for Apple, gives publishers more control over pricing, and offers Apple content and a good return sufficient to induce it to market and sell its platform.

It is worth noting here that there is no reason to think that the wholesale model wouldn’t also have generated enough content and enough return for Apple, so I don’t think the ultimate motivation here for Apple was higher prices (which could well have actually led to lower total return given fewer sales), but rather that it wasn’t interested in paying for control.  So in exchange for a (possibly) larger slice of the pie, as well as consistency with its existing content provider back-end and the avoidance of having to monitor and make pricing decisions,  Apple happily relinquished decision-making over pricing and other aspects of sales.

The Most Favored Nation Clauses

Having given up this price control, Apple has one remaining problem: no guarantee of being able to offer attractive content at an attractive price if it is forced to try to sell e-books at a high price while its competitors can undercut it.  And so, as is common in this sort of distribution agreement, Apple obtains “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) clauses from publishers to ensure that if they are permitting other platforms to sell their books at a lower price, Apple will at least be able to do so, as well.  The contracts at issue in the case specify maximum resale prices for content and ensure Apple that if a publisher permits, say, Amazon to sell the same content at a lower price, it will likewise offer the content via Apple’s iBooks store for the same price.

The DOJ is fighting a war against MFNs, which is a story for another day, and it seems clear from the terms of the settlement with the three setting publishers that indeed MFNs are a big part of the target here.  But there is nothing inherently problematic about MFNs, and there is plenty of scholarship explaining why they are beneficial.  Here, and important among these, they facilitate entry by offering some protection for an entrant’s up-front investment in challenging an incumbent, and prevent subsequent entrants from undercutting this price.  In this sense MFNs are essentially an important way of inducing retailers like Apple to sign on to an RPM (no control) model by offering some protection against publishers striking a deal with a competitor that leaves Apple forced to price its e-books out of the market.

There is nothing, that I know of, in the MFNs or elsewhere in the agreements that requires the publishers to impose higher resale prices elsewhere, or prevents the publishers from selling throughApple at a lower price, if necessary.  That said, it may well have been everyone’s hope that, as the DOJ alleges, the MFNs would operate like price floors instead of price ceilings, ensuring higher prices for publishers.  But hoping for higher prices is not an antitrust offense, and, as I’ve discussed, it’s not even clear that, viewed more broadly in terms of the evolution of the e-book and e-reader markets, higher prices in the short run would be bad for consumers.

The Legal Standard

To the extent that book publishers don’t necessarily know what’s really in their best interest, the DOJ is even more constrained in judging the benefits (or costs) for consumers at large from this scheme.  As I’ve suggested, there is a pretty clear procompetitive story here, and a court may indeed agree that this should not be judged under a per se liability standard (as would apply in the case of naked price-fixing).

Most important, here there is no allegation that the publishers and Apple (or the publishers among themselves) agreed on price.  Rather, the allegation is that they agreed to adopt a particular business model (one that, I would point out, probably resulted in greater variation in price, rather than less, compared to Amazon’s traditional $9.99-for-all pricing scheme).  If the DOJ can convince a court that this nevertheless amounts to a naked price-fixing agreement among publishers, with Apple operating as the hub, then they are probably sunk.  But while antitrust law is suspicious of collective action among rivals in coordinating on prices, this change in business model does not alone coordinate on prices.  Each individual publisher can set its own price, and it’s not clear that the DOJ’s evidence points to any agreement with respect to actual pricing level.

It does seem pretty clear that there is coordination here on the shift in business models.  But sometimes antitrust law condones such collective action to take account of various efficiencies (think standard setting or joint ventures or collective rights groups like BMI).  Here, there is a more than plausible case that coordinated action to move to a plausibly-more-efficient business model was necessary and pro-competitive.  If Apple can convince a court of that, then the DOJ has a rule of reason case on its hands and is facing a very uphill battle.