Archives For price-fixing

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

Register HERE

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.

From the WSJ:

Publishers argue that the agency model promotes competition by allowing more booksellers to thrive. They say Amazon had sold e-books below cost and that agency pricing saved book publishers from the fate suffered by record companies.

But the Justice Department believes it has a strong case that Apple and the five publishers colluded to raise the price of e-books, people familiar with the matter say.

Apple and the publishers deny that.

The Justice Department isn’t taking aim at agency pricing itself. The department objects to, people familiar with the case say, coordination among companies that simultaneously decided to change their pricing policies.

“We don’t pick business models—that’s not our job,” Ms. Pozen says, without mentioning the case explicitly. “But when you see collusive behavior at the highest levels of companies, you know something’s wrong. And you’ve got to do something about it.”

For related posts, see here.  The case increasingly appears to focus on whether the DOJ can prove coordination among rivals with respect to the shift to the agency model and e-book prices.

From a pure antitrust perspective, the real story behind the DOJ’s Apple e-book investigation is the Division’s deep commitment to the view that Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) clauses are anticompetitive (see also here), no doubt spurred on at least in part by Chief Economist Fiona Scott-Morton’s interesting work on the topic.

Of course, there are other important stories here (see Matt Yglesias’ excellent post), like “how much should a digital book cost?” And as Yglesias writes, whether “the Justice Department’s notion that we should fear a book publishers’ cartel is borderline absurd, on par with worrying about price-fixing in the horse-and-buggy market.”

I can’t help but notice another angle here.  For those not familiar, the current dispute over e-books emerges over a shift in business models from a traditional one in which publishers sold at wholesale prices to bookstores who would, in turn, set the prices they desired — sometimes below the book’s cover price — and sell to consumers at retail.  Much of the dispute arises out of the incentive conflict between publishers and retailers with respect to the profit-maximizing price.  The WSJ describes the recent iteration of the conflict:

To build its early lead in e-books, Amazon Inc. AMZN +0.19% sold many new best sellers at $9.99 to encourage consumers to buy its Kindle electronic readers. But publishers deeply disliked the strategy, fearing consumers would grow accustomed to inexpensive e-books and limit publishers’ ability to sell pricier titles.

Apple’s proposed solution was a move to what is described as an “agency model,” in which Apple takes a 30% share of the revenues and the publisher sets the price — readers may recognize that this essentially amounts to resale price maintenance — an oft-discussed topic at TOTM.  The move to the agency-RPM model also entailed the introduction of an MFN clause stipulating that publishers could not sell to rivals at a lower price.

Whether Apple facilitated a collusive agreement among publishers or whether this industry-wide move to the agency-model is an efficient and consumer-welfare enhancing method of solving the incentive conflict between publishers and retailers remains to be seen.  What is somewhat new in this dispute about book distribution is the technology involved; but the underlying economics of vertical incentive conflict between publishers and retailers is not!

Many economists are aware Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics textbook was apparently the first commodity sold in the United States under an RPM agreement!  (HT: William Breit)  The practice apparently has deeper roots in Germany.  The RPM experiment was thought up by (later to become Sir) Frederick Macmillan.  Perhaps this will sound familiar:

In 1890 Frederick Macmillan of the Macmillan Company was casting about for a book with which to conduct an experiment in resale price maintenance.  For years it had been the practice in Great Britain for the bookselllers to give their customers discounts off the list prices; i.e. price cutting had become the general practice.  In March, 1890, Mr. Macmilan had written to The Bookseller suggesting a change from the current discount system and had inserted a form to be filled out by the dealers.

Experimentation with business models to align the incentives of publishers and sellers is nothing new; it is only wonderful coincidence that the examples involve a seminal economics text published as the Sherman Act was enacted.  Nonetheless, an interesting historical parallel and one that suggests caution in interpreting the relevant facts without understanding the pervasive nature of incentive conflicts within this particular product line between publishers and sellers.  One does not want to discourage experimentation with business models aimed at solving those incentive conflicts.  What remains to be seen is whether and why the move to the new arrangement was executed through express coordination rather than unilateral action.

[UPDATE:  Josh links to a WSJ article telling us that EU antitrust enforcers raided several (unnamed) e-book publishers as part of an apparent antitrust investigation into the agency model and whether it is “improperly restrictive.”  Whatever that means.  Key grafs:

At issue for antitrust regulators is whether agency models are improperly restrictive. Europe, in particular, has strong anticollusion laws that limit the extent to which companies can agree on the prices consumers will eventually be charged.

Amazon, in particular, has vociferously opposed the agency practice, saying it would like to set prices as it sees fit. Publishers, by contrast, resist the notion of online retailers’ deep discounting.

It is unclear whether the animating question is whether the publishers might have agreed to a particular pricing model, or to particular prices within that model.  As a legal matter that distinction probably doesn’t matter at all; as an economic matter it would seem to be more complicated–to be explored further another day . . . .]

A year ago I wrote about the economics of the e-book publishing market in the context of the dispute between Amazon and some publishers (notably Macmillan) over pricing.  At the time I suggested a few things about how the future might pan out (never a god good idea . . . ):

And that’s really the twist.  Amazon is not ready to be a platform in this business.  The economic conditions are not yet right and it is clearly making a lot of money selling physical books directly to its users.  The Kindle is not ubiquitous and demand for electronic versions of books is not very significant–and thus Amazon does not want to take on the full platform development and distribution risk.  Where seller control over price usually entails a distribution of inventory risk away from suppliers and toward sellers, supplier control over price correspondingly distributes platform development risk toward sellers.  Under the old system Amazon was able to encourage the distribution of the platform (the Kindle) through loss-leader pricing on e-books, ensuring that publishers shared somewhat in the costs of platform distribution (from selling correspondingly fewer physical books) and allowing Amazon to subsidize Kindle sales in a way that helped to encourage consumer familiarity with e-books.  Under the new system it does not have that ability and can only subsidize Kindle use by reducing the price of Kindles–which impedes Amazon from engaging in effective price discrimination for the Kindle, does not tie the subsidy to increased use, and will make widespread distribution of the device more expensive and more risky for Amazon.

This “agency model,” if you recall, is one where, essentially, publishers, rather than Amazon, determine the price for electronic versions of their books sold via Amazon and pay Amazon a percentage.  The problem from Amazon’s point of view, as I mention in the quote above, is that without the ability to control the price of the books it sells, Amazon is limited essentially to fiddling with the price of the reader–the platform–itself in order to encourage more participation on the reader side of the market.  But I surmised (again in the quote above), that fiddling with the price of the platform would be far more blunt and potentially costly than controlling the price of the books themselves, mainly because the latter correlates almost perfectly with usage, and the former does not–and in the end Amazon may end up subsidizing lots of Kindle purchases from which it is then never able to recoup its losses because it accidentally subsidized lots of Kindle purchases by people who had no interest in actually using the devices very much (either because they’re sticking with paper or because Apple has leapfrogged the competition).

It appears, nevertheless, that Amazon has indeed been pursuing this pricing strategy.  According to this post from Kevin Kelly,

In October 2009 John Walkenbach noticed that the price of the Kindle was falling at a consistent rate, lowering almost on a schedule. By June 2010, the rate was so unwavering that he could easily forecast the date at which the Kindle would be free: November 2011.

There’s even a nice graph to go along with it:

So what about the recoupment risk?  Here’s my new theory:  Amazon, having already begun offering free streaming videos for Prime customers, will also begin offering heavily-discounted Kindles and even e-book subsidies–but will also begin rescinding its shipping subsidy and otherwise make the purchase of dead tree books relatively more costly (including by maintaining less inventory–another way to recoup).  It will still face a substantial threat from competing platforms like the iPad but Amazon is at least in a position to affect a good deal of consumer demand for Kindle’s dead tree competitors.

For a take on what’s at stake (here relating to newspapers rather than books, but I’m sure the dynamic is similar), this tidbit linked from one of the comments to Kevin Kelly’s post is eye-opening:

If newspapers switched over to being all online, the cost base would be instantly and permanently transformed. The OECD report puts the cost of printing a typical paper at 28 per cent and the cost of sales and distribution at 24 per cent: so the physical being of the paper absorbs 52 per cent of all costs. (Administration costs another 8 per cent and advertising another 16.) That figure may well be conservative. A persuasive looking analysis in the Business Insider put the cost of printing and distributing the New York Times at $644 million, and then added this: ‘a source with knowledge of the real numbers tells us we’re so low in our estimate of the Times’s printing costs that we’re not even in the ballpark.’ Taking the lower figure, that means that New York Times, if it stopped printing a physical edition of the paper, could afford to give every subscriber a free Kindle. Not the bog-standard Kindle, but the one with free global data access. And not just one Kindle, but four Kindles. And not just once, but every year. And that’s using the low estimate for the costs of printing.

Connecticut AG Richard Blumenthal has reportedly contacted Apple and Amazon concerning their pricing arrangements with publishers (WSJ, CNN):

Mr. Blumenthal said he has sent letters to Amazon and Apple asking them to “meet with his office” to address his concerns that agreements in place may restrict rivals from offering cheaper e-books. For instance, he said, “both Amazon and Apple have reached agreements with the largest e-book publishers that ensure both will receive the best prices for e-books over any competitors.”

A “most favored nation” (MFN) clause is a contractual agreement between a supplier and a customer that requires the supplier to sell to the customer on pricing terms at least as favorable as the pricing terms on which that supplier sells to other customers.  They are common both in the retail distribution of a number of products, as well as health care, and in long-term contracts.  Apple and Amazon are also moving to the so-called “agency” model for an increasing number of titles.  Under that distribution model,  the publisher sets it own retail prices and the publisher and retailer (Apple, Amazon) negotiate a split of the revenues (in this case, reportedly 70 percent to the publisher).

With respect to the MFNs, Blumenthal also noted the following in his statement:

“These agreements among publishers, Amazon and Apple appear to have already resulted in uniform prices for many of the most popular e-books—potentially depriving consumers of competitive prices,” said Mr. Blumenthal in a prepared statement.”

Of course, parallel pricing activity merely raises the classic antitrust cartel identification problem, i.e. both collusive and competitive pricing can look uniform (in the limit, think of the simple perfect competition model in which all sellers price at marginal cost).  The anticompetitive theory concerning MFNs is that they can facilitate tacit collusion by increasing the cost of targeted discounts aimed at attracting new business (since a discount to one must be given to all) (see Salop, 1986).  On the other hand, MFNs can also create efficiencies, and thus, lower prices.  For example, in a market with search costs where uninformed buyers can avoid those costs and “free-ride” on the bargaining effort of the informed buyers by bargaining for MFNs.  MFNs can also increase pricing flexibility in long-term economic relationships while constraining opportunism (see Crocker & Lyon) and facilitate entry of new products by guaranteeing the original entrant that subsequent entrants do not free-ride on his creation of the market and bargain for lower input prices.  One can think of this as compensating the original entrant for bearing the risk of innovation.

In the meantime, e-book sales are apparently on the rise:

Electronic book sales have been rapidly heating up. The Association of American Publishers said that e-book sales at 13 reporting publishers grew 163% from a year earlier to $29.3 million in May. The category accounted for 8.5% of the total trade books market through the end of May, compared to 2.9% for the same period in 2009.

The standard antitrust approach would require the Connecticut AG to demonstrate under a rule of reason analysis that the clauses facilitated collusion and that any economic harms outweighed the efficiencies of the MFN.  The dramatic increase in output in the market is, of course, not dispositive as a matter of antitrust economics because, for example, one is always free to argue that output would have increased more but for the agreements.  But if the facts are that output continues to increase at the same pace or faster with the MFN clauses in effect, it does not help the AG’s case.

The Amazon vs. Macmillan controversy has been beaten to a pulp in the blogosphere.  See Megan McArdle, John Scalzi, Joshua Gans, Virginia Postrel, Lynne Kiesling, Lynne Kielsing and Lynne Kiesling, among others.  Pulp or no (get it? It’s a book/e-book pun), I haven’t seen anyone hit squarely on what I think is the crux of the issue: control rights.

Amazon is an interesting hybrid, sometimes acting as a platform, sometimes acting as a direct merchant.  In its capacity as a platform, Amazon facilitates sales of goods from other merchants to Amazon’s customers through its website.  Amazon itself doesn’t actually sell these goods (because it never actually owns them), although it operates the system that enables these sales and takes a cut.  In its capacity as a merchant, Amazon purchases goods from suppliers and sells them directly to its customers.

The Kindle makes the merchant/platform distinction even more muddled for Amazon, and the distinction is at the core of the issue.

Basically, the difference between a merchant and a platform, as suggested above, is in the degree of control an intermediary exerts over pricing and other terms of sale, and the extent to which it bears risk.  The more control, the more merchant-like; the less control, the more platform-like (Thus the Gap is a merchant; eBay is a platform).  Background economic conditions determine which model (or where on the continuum between them) is more efficient for a given intermediary or market.  As these conditions change, the optimal degree of control may change, as well.  At the same time, suppliers or intermediaries may choose to assert or deny control in response to changing economic conditions–and this choice may not be optimal.  To my thinking, this is what is going on in the book/e-book market.

Steven Pearlstein in the WaPo hints at the issue:

While markets have their flaws, over the long run they are good at executing these technological transformations. My guess is that in the not-so-distant future, best-selling authors such as John Grisham and Malcolm Gladwell — along with unknown authors peddling their first books — will publish their own works, contracting with independent editors and marketers and selling directly to consumers as much as possible. Other authors will turn to smaller, more specialized publishing houses that will offer smaller advances but bigger royalties and will be built, as they once were, around great editors. Publishers will sell their books through competing online distributors and traditional hard-copy bookstores, the latter of which will continue to exist not only as places to browse and socialize, but also as places to have printed on demand. Backlists will be infinite, pricing will be dynamic, and more copies of more books will be read and sold.

From Amazon’s point of view, this possible future is probably a quite likely one (in part because it can help to hasten its arrival), and one which does not necessarily bode well for its merchant-like business model (on which see, e.g., Charlie Martin).  But this future is a goldmine for its platform model, particularly to the extent that Amazon’s Kindle offers a widespread and attractive platform to readers and authors alike.

When it comes to selling physical books directly, Amazon has, and is used to, full control over the terms of sale.  When it comes to selling e-books, however, Amazon is not really a merchant–but it’s not (yet) exactly a platform, either.  Most obviously, there is no physical inventory for Amazon to purchase with e-books, and whether it actually purchases e-books at the time of sale to resell in each transaction (even at a predetermined price) or simply facilitates a transaction between publisher and purchaser at the time of sale, Amazon bears the same extent of inventory risk: zero. Very platform-like.  But the terms of contracts with publishers complicate matters.  Under the Amazon-negotiated pricing scheme, Amazon does, indeed, buy the e-book and re-sell it.  Although this entails no inventory risk, it does mean that Amazon bears “pricing risk” (if that’s a term) just as a merchant does, and it is stuck with the price it negotiated with publishers, no matter the price at which it actually sells its e-books.

There are other nuances.  Important among these, use of e-books purchased through Amazon requires that buyers own a Kindle (just as use of Xbox video games generally requires owners to have purchased an Xbox).  If not enough buyers own Kindles, there is little value (and some cost) to publishers in participating in the e-book market through Amazon; likewise, if not enough publishers sell e-books through Amazon, there is little value to consumers in buying a Kindle.  Again, very platform-like.  But books will be written, published and marketed regardless (or maybe almost regardless) of the number of Kindle owners, and book buyers will buy the same books (or maybe almost the same books) whether they own Kindles or not–and some Kindle owners will buy physical books even though they own Kindles.  The point is that the indirect network effects (or economies of scale–a debate for another day) that one expects in platform markets and that one sees in, say, the video game market (the more Xbox owners, the more Xbox game developers there will be and thus the more Xbox owners there will be) are severely attenuated in the e-book market currently because of the overwhelming demand for physical versions of the same books.

Now, both of these points are discussed in different ways by many of the commentators I pointed to on this issue.  Obviously the nature of the contracts between Amazon and publishers is central to the story (in fact, it is the story), and everyone has discussed the issue.  Several folks have also pointed out that e-books compete with physical books, usually to mention that publishers are interested in price discrimination (on which Kiesling and Postrel are particularly good).

But I think viewed in the light of the choice of business model it is clear that the issue is control.  The question is the extent to which Amazon should act more like a platform or more like a merchant, and this distinction is determined by the amount of control it has.  As a merchant, Amazon expects–and everyone benefits from it having–a lot of control, with both its attendant costs and benefits, over the terms of sale of its products.  As a platform, Amazon is willing to cede control over the terms of sale and just manage the platform.

When publishers assert that they want more control over e-book prices they are pushing Amazon toward a platform model for e-books.  The problem is that because book publishers do not internalize the benefits conferred on other publishers from a wider use of Amazon’s platform, their pricing incentives may be inefficient.  As others have noted, publishers probably want to engage in pricing and price discrimination that will maximize their revenue.  But this control may not be optimal for the platform at this nascent stage.

And that’s really the twist.  Amazon is not ready to be a platform in this business.  The economic conditions are not yet right and it is clearly making a lot of money selling physical books directly to its users.  The Kindle is not ubiquitous and demand for electronic versions of books is not very significant–and thus Amazon does not want to take on the full platform development and distribution risk.  Where seller control over price usually entails a distribution of inventory risk away from suppliers and toward sellers, supplier control over price correspondingly distributes platform development risk toward sellers.  Under the old system Amazon was able to encourage the distribution of the platform (the Kindle) through loss-leader pricing on e-books, ensuring that publishers shared somewhat in the costs of platform distribution (from selling correspondingly fewer physical books) and allowing Amazon to subsidize Kindle sales in a way that helped to encourage consumer familiarity with e-books.  Under the new system it does not have that ability and can only subsidize Kindle use by reducing the price of Kindles–which impedes Amazon from engaging in effective price discrimination for the Kindle, does not tie the subsidy to increased use, and will make widespread distribution of the device more expensive and more risky for Amazon.

Many of the commentators (see especially Scalzi and Kiesling) are angered by Amazon’s conduct in the affair, and see in it reason to shift their loyalty from Amazon to its competitors (or at least they did before Amazon capitulated).  I see it quite differently.  To me the affair was a dispute over control rights allocated by contract.  Amazon is willing to pay more for control–to act, in other words, like a merchant re-selling publishers’ books.  It wants this control because it wants to sell e-books at a lower price than publishers want in an effort to sell more Kindles and encourage e-book use (and, incidentally, sell fewer physical books).  At this stage in this market what is needed is not more incentive for publishers to develop more inventory, but more incentive for Amazon to develop its platform.  To the extent that Amazon must now bear more of the risk and cost associated with the transition to e-books, the transition will likely occur more slowly.  Amazon’s effort to maintain pricing control by playing hardball with Macmillan in the physical book market was appropriate and gutsy.  And we would have been better off if it had succeeded.

I don’t think there’s anything to be “done” about the state of affairs other than for Amazon and publishers including Macmillan to continue negotiating.  But I will note one thing (seconding Joshua Gans):  It is almost certainly the case that Amazon capitulated in its dispute with Macmillan because of fear of drawing antitrust litigation.  If so, I think this would be most unfortunate, and it would represent antitrust enforcement placing an inefficient thumb on the bargaining power scale.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to reject the idea of false positives . . . .

Important Hat Tip.  When I started writing this post I hadn’t yet seen this article by Andrei Hagiu (Hagiu, Andrei (2007) “Merchant or Two-Sided Platform?,” Review of Network Economics: Vol. 6: Iss. 2, Article 3) (embarrassingly enough, as it was published in 2007).  But my thinking here maps significantly onto Andrei’s and I re-wrote some of the post, particularly reflecting some of his terminology, once I did read it in the middle of drafting the post.  It strikes me as an extremely important article in the two-sided markets literature, and I highly recommend it to everyone interested in the topic.  To the extent that I say what he says, he says it better; and to the extent that we diverge, he is probably correct and I am probably wrong.