The goal of US antitrust law is to ensure that competition continues to produce positive results for consumers and the economy in general. We published a letter co-signed by twenty three of the U.S.’s leading economists, legal scholars and practitioners, including one winner of the Nobel Prize in economics (full list of signatories here), to exactly that effect urging the House Judiciary Committee on the State of Antitrust Law to reject calls for radical upheaval of antitrust law that would, among other things, undermine the independence and neutrality of US antitrust law.
A critical part of maintaining independence and neutrality in the administration of antitrust is ensuring that it is insulated from politics. Unfortunately, this view is under attack from all sides. The President sees widespread misconduct among US tech firms that he believes are controlled by the “radical left” and is, apparently, happy to use whatever tools are at hand to chasten them.
Meanwhile, Senator Klobuchar has claimed, without any real evidence, that the mooted Uber/Grubhub merger is simply about monopolisation of the market, and not, for example, related to the huge changes that businesses like this are facing because of the Covid shutdown.
Both of these statements challenge the principle that the rule of law depends on being politically neutral, including in antitrust.
Our letter, contrary to the claims made by President Trump, Sen. Klobuchar and some of the claims made to the Committee, asserts that the evidence and economic theory is clear: existing antitrust law is doing a good job of promoting competition and consumer welfare in digital markets and the economy more broadly, and concludes that the Committee should focus on reforms that improve antitrust at the margin, not changes that throw out decades of practice and precedent.
The letter argues that:
The American economy—including the digital sector—is competitive, innovative, and serves consumers well, contrary to how it is sometimes portrayed in the public debate.
Structural changes in the economy have resulted from increased competition, and increases in national concentration have generally happened because competition at the local level has intensified and local concentration has fallen.
Lax antitrust enforcement has not allowed systematic increases in market power, and the evidence simply does not support out the idea that antitrust enforcement has weakened in recent decades.
Existing antitrust law is adequate for protecting competition in the modern economy, and built up through years of careful case-by-case scrutiny. Calls to throw out decades of precedent to achieve an antitrust “Year Zero” would throw away a huge body of learning and deliberation.
History teaches that discarding the modern approach to antitrust would harm consumers, and return to a situation where per se rules prohibited the use of economic analysis and fact-based defences of business practices.
Common sense reforms should be pursued to improve antitrust enforcement, and the reforms proposed in the letter could help to improve competition and consumer outcomes in the United States without overturning the whole system.
The reforms suggested include measures to increase transparency of the DoJ and FTC, greater scope for antitrust challenges against state-sponsored monopolies, stronger penalties for criminal cartel conduct, and more agency resources being made available to protect workers from anti-competitive wage-fixing agreements between businesses. These are suggestions for the House Committee to consider and are not supported by all the letter’s signatories.
Some of the arguments in the letter are set out in greater detail in the ICLE’s own submission to the Committee, which goes into detail about the nature of competition in modern digital markets and in traditional markets that have been changed because of the adoption of digital technologies.
A spate of recent newspaperinvestigations and commentary have focused on Apple allegedly discriminating against rivals in the App Store. The underlying assumption is that Apple, as a vertically integrated entity that operates both a platform for third-party apps and also makes it own apps, is acting nefariously whenever it “discriminates” against rival apps through prioritization, enters into popular app markets, or charges a “tax” or “surcharge” on rival apps.
For most people, the word discrimination has a pejorative connotation of animus based upon prejudice: racism, sexism, homophobia. One of the definitions you will find in the dictionary reflects this. But another definition is a lot less charged: the act of making or perceiving a difference. (This is what people mean when they say that a person has a discriminating palate, or a discriminating taste in music, for example.)
In economics, discrimination can be a positive attribute. For instance, effective price discrimination can result in wealthier consumers paying a higher price than less well off consumers for the same product or service, and it can ensure that products and services are in fact available for less-wealthy consumers in the first place. That would seem to be a socially desirable outcome (although under some circumstances, perfect price discrimination can be socially undesirable).
Antitrust law rightly condemns conduct only when it harms competition and not simply when it harms a competitor. This is because it is competition that enhances consumer welfare, not the presence or absence of a competitor — or, indeed, the profitability of competitors. The difficult task for antitrust enforcers is to determine when a vertically integrated firm with “market power” in an upstream market is able to effectively discriminate against rivals in a downstream market in a way that harms consumers.
Even assuming the claims of critics are true, alleged discrimination by Apple against competitor apps in the App Store may harm those competitors, but it doesn’t necessarily harm either competition or consumer welfare.
The three potential antitrust issues facing Apple can be summarized as:
There is nothing new here economically. All three issues are analogous to claims against other tech companies. But, as I detail below, the evidence to establish any of these claims at best represents harm to competitors, and fails to establish any harm to the competitive process or to consumer welfare.
Antitrust enforcers have rejected similar prioritization claims against Google. For instance, rivals like Microsoft and Yelp have funded attacks against Google, arguing the search engine is harming competition by prioritizing its own services in its product search results over competitors. As ICLE and affiliated scholars have pointed out, though, there is nothing inherently harmful to consumers about such prioritization. There are also numerous benefits in platforms directly answering queries, even if it ends up directing users to platform-owned products or services.
there is good reason to believe that Google’s decision to favor its own content over that of other sites is procompetitive. Beyond determining and ensuring relevance, Google surely has the prerogative to vigorously compete and to decide how to design its products to keep up with a changing market. In this case, that means designing, developing, and offering its own content to partially displace the original “ten blue links” design of its search results page and offer its own answers to users’ queries in its stead.
Here, the antitrust case against Apple for prioritization is similarly flawed. For example, as noted in a recent article in the WSJ, users often use the App Store search in order to find apps they already have installed:
“Apple customers have a very strong connection to our products and many of them use search as a way to find and open their apps,” Apple said in a statement. “This customer usage is the reason Apple has strong rankings in search, and it’s the same reason Uber, Microsoft and so many others often have high rankings as well.”
If a substantial portion of searches within the App Store are for apps already on the iPhone, then showing the Apple app near the top of the search results could easily be consumer welfare-enhancing.
Apple is also theoretically leaving money on the table by prioritizing its (already pre-loaded) apps over third party apps. If its algorithm promotes its own apps over those that may earn it a 30% fee — additional revenue — the prioritization couldn’t plausibly be characterized as a “benefit” to Apple. Apple is ultimately in the business of selling hardware. Losing customers of the iPhone or iPad by prioritizing apps consumers want less would not be a winning business strategy.
Further, it stands to reason that those who use an iPhone may have a preference for Apple apps. Such consumers would be naturally better served by seeing Apple’s apps prioritized over third-party developer apps. And if consumers do not prefer Apple’s apps, rival apps are merely seconds of scrolling away.
Moreover, all of the above assumes that Apple is engaging in sufficiently pervasive discrimination through prioritzation to have a major impact on the app ecosystem. But substantial evidence exists that the universe of searches for which Apple’s algorithm prioritizes Apple apps is small. For instance, most searches are for branded apps already known by the searcher:
Keywords: how many are brands?
Top 500: 58.4%
Top 400: 60.75%
Top 300: 68.33%
Top 200: 80.5%
Top 100: 86%
Top 50: 90%
Top 25: 92%
Top 10: 100%
This is corroborated by data from the NYT’s own study, which suggests Apple prioritized its own apps first in only roughly 1% of the overall keywords queried:
Whatever the precise extent of increase in prioritization, it seems like any claims of harm are undermined by the reality that almost 99% of App Store results don’t list Apple apps first.
The fact is, very few keyword searches are even allegedly affected by prioritization. And the algorithm is often adjusting to searches for apps already pre-loaded on the device. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to conclude consumers are being harmed by prioritization in search results of the App Store.
The issue of Apple building apps to compete with popular apps in its marketplace is similar to complaints about Amazon creating its own brands to compete with what is sold by third parties on its platform. For instance, as reported multiple times in the Washington Post:
Clue, a popular app that women use to track their periods, recently rocketed to the top of the App Store charts. But the app’s future is now in jeopardy as Apple incorporates period and fertility tracking features into its own free Health app, which comes preinstalled on every device. Clue makes money by selling subscriptions and services in its free app.
However, there is nothing inherently anticompetitive about retailers selling their own brands. If anything, entry into the market is normally procompetitive. As Randy Picker recently noted with respect to similar claims against Amazon:
The heart of this dynamic isn’t new. Sears started its catalogue business in 1888 and then started using the Craftsman and Kenmore brands as in-house brands in 1927. Sears was acquiring inventory from third parties and obviously knew exactly which ones were selling well and presumably made decisions about which markets to enter and which to stay out of based on that information. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, has a number of well-known private brands and firms negotiating with Walmart know full well that Walmart can enter their markets, subject of course to otherwise applicable restraints on entry such as intellectual property laws… I think that is possible to tease out advantages that a platform has regarding inventory experimentation. It can outsource some of those costs to third parties, though sophisticated third parties should understand where they can and cannot have a sustainable advantage given Amazon’s ability to move to build-or-bought first-party inventory. We have entire bodies of law— copyright, patent, trademark and more—that limit the ability of competitors to appropriate works, inventions and symbols. Those legal systems draw very carefully considered lines regarding permitted and forbidden uses. And antitrust law generally favors entry into markets and doesn’t look to create barriers that block firms, large or small, from entering new markets.
If anything, Apple is in an even better position than Amazon. Apple invests revenue in app development, not because the apps themselves generate revenue, but because it wants people to use the hardware, i.e. the iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches. The reason Apple created an App Store in the first place is because this allows Apple to make more money from selling devices. In order to promote security on those devices, Apple institutes rules for the App Store, but it ultimately decides whether to create its own apps and provide access to other apps based upon its desire to maximize the value of the device. If Apple chooses to create free apps in order to improve iOS for users and sell more hardware, it is not a harm to competition.
Apple’s ability to enter into popular app markets should not be constrained unless it can be shown that by giving consumers another choice, consumers are harmed. As noted above, most searches in the App Store are for branded apps to begin with. If consumers already know what they want in an app, it hardly seems harmful for Apple to offer — and promote — its own, additional version as well.
In the case of Clue, if Apple creates a free health app, it may hurt sales for Clue. But it doesn’t hurt consumers who want the functionality and would prefer to get it from Apple for free. This sort of product evolution is not harming competition, but enhancing it. And, it must be noted, Apple doesn’t exclude Clue from its devices. If, indeed, Clue offers a better product, or one that some users prefer, they remain able to find it and use it.
The so-called App Store “Tax”
The argument that Apple has an unfair competitive advantage over rival apps which have to pay commissions to Apple to be on the App Store (a “tax” or “surcharge”) has similarly produced no evidence of harm to consumers.
The WSJ and NYT stories give the impression that Apple uses its commissions on third party apps to reduce competition for its own apps. However, this is inconsistent with how Apple charges its commission.
For instance, Apple doesn’t charge commissions on free apps, which make up 84% of the App Store. Apple also doesn’t charge commissions for apps that are free to download but are supported by advertising — including hugely popular apps like Yelp, Buzzfeed, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook. Even apps which are “readers” where users purchase or subscribe to content outside the app but use the app to access that content are not subject to commissions, like Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Kindle, and Audible. Apps for “physical goods and services” — like Amazon, Airbnb, Lyft, Target, and Uber — are also free to download and are not subject to commissions. The class of apps which are subject to a 30% commission include:
paid apps (like many games),
free apps that then have in-app purchases (other games and services like Skype and TikTok),
and free apps with digital subscriptions (Pandora, Hulu, which have 30% commission first year and then 15% in subsequent years), and
cross-platform apps (Dropbox, Hulu, and Minecraft) which allow for digital goods and services to be purchased in-app and Apple collects commission on in-app sales, but not sales from other platforms.
Despite protestations to the contrary, these costs are hardly unreasonable: third party apps receive the benefit not only of being in Apple’s App Store (without which they wouldn’t have any opportunity to earn revenue from sales on Apple’s platform), but also of the features and other investments Apple continues to pour into its platform — investments that make the ecosystem better for consumers and app developers alike. There is enormous value to the platform Apple has invested in, and a great deal of it is willingly shared with developers and consumers. It does not make it anticompetitive to ask those who use the platform to pay for it.
In fact, these benefits are probably even more important for smaller developers rather than bigger ones who can invest in the necessary back end to reach consumers without the App Store, like Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Kindle. For apps without brand reputation (and giant marketing budgets), the ability for consumers to trust that downloading the app will not lead to the installation of malware (as often occurs when downloading from the web) is surely essential to small developers’ ability to compete. The App Store offers this.
Despite the claims made in Spotify’s complaint against Apple, Apple doesn’t have a duty to deal with app developers. Indeed, Apple could theoretically fill the App Store with only apps that it developed itself, like Apple Music. Instead, Apple has opted for a platform business model, which entails the creation of a new outlet for others’ innovation and offerings. This is pro-consumer in that it created an entire marketplace that consumers probably didn’t even know they wanted — and certainly had no means to obtain — until it existed. Spotify, which out-competed iTunes to the point that Apple had to go back to the drawing board and create Apple Music, cannot realistically complain that Apple’s entry into music streaming is harmful to competition. Rather, it is precisely what vigorous competition looks like: the creation of more product innovation, lower prices, and arguably (at least for some) higher quality.
Interestingly, Spotify is not even subject to the App Store commission. Instead, Spotify offers a work-around to iPhone users to obtain its premium version without ads on iOS. What Spotify actually desires is the ability to sell premium subscriptions to Apple device users without paying anything above the de minimis up-front cost to Apple for the creation and maintenance of the App Store. It is unclear how many potential Spotify users are affected by the inability to directly buy the ad-free version since Spotify discontinued offering it within the App Store. But, whatever the potential harm to Spotify itself, there’s little reason to think consumers or competition bear any of it.
There is no evidence that Apple’s alleged “discrimination” against rival apps harms consumers. Indeed, the opposite would seem to be the case. The regulatory discrimination against successful tech platforms like Apple and the App Store is far more harmful to consumers.
Last week, the DOJ cleared the merger of CVS Health and Aetna (conditional on Aetna’s divesting its Medicare Part D business), a merger that, as I previously noted at a House Judiciary hearing, “presents a creative effort by two of the most well-informed and successful industry participants to try something new to reform a troubled system.” (My full testimony is available here).
Of course it’s always possible that the experiment will fail — that the merger won’t “revolutioniz[e] the consumer health care experience” in the way that CVS and Aetna are hoping. But it’s a low (antitrust) risk effort to address some of the challenges confronting the healthcare industry — and apparently the DOJ agrees.
I discuss the weakness of the antitrust arguments against the merger at length in my testimony. What I particularly want to draw attention to here is how this merger — like many vertical mergers — represents business model innovation by incumbents.
The CVS/Aetna merger is just one part of a growing private-sector movement in the healthcare industry to adopt new (mostly) vertical arrangements that seek to move beyond some of the structural inefficiencies that have plagued healthcare in the United States since World War II. Indeed, ambitious and interesting as it is, the merger arises amidst a veritable wave of innovative, vertical healthcare mergers and other efforts to integrate the healthcare services supply chain in novel ways.
These sorts of efforts (and the current DOJ’s apparent support for them) should be applauded and encouraged. I need not rehash the economic literature on vertical restraints here (see, e.g., Lafontaine & Slade, etc.). But especially where government interventions have already impaired the efficient workings of a market (as they surely have, in spades, in healthcare), it is important not to compound the error by trying to micromanage private efforts to restructure around those constraints.
Current trends in private-sector-driven healthcare reform
In the past, the most significant healthcare industry mergers have largely been horizontal (i.e., between two insurance providers, or two hospitals) or “traditional” business model mergers for the industry (i.e., vertical mergers aimed at building out managed care organizations). This pattern suggests a sort of fealty to the status quo, with insurers interested primarily in expanding their insurance business or providers interested in expanding their capacity to provide medical services.
Today’s health industry mergers and ventures seem more frequently to be different in character, and they portend an industry-wide experiment in the provision of vertically integrated healthcare that we should enthusiastically welcome.
But a number of other recent arrangements and business models center around relationships among drug manufacturers, pharmacies, and PBMs, and these tend to minimize the role of insurers. While not a “vertical” arrangement, per se, Walmart’s generic drug program, for example, offers $4 prescriptions to customers regardless of insurance (the typical generic drug copay for patients covered by employer-provided health insurance is $11), and Walmart does not seek or receive reimbursement from health plans for these drugs. It’s been offering this program since 2006, but in 2016 it entered into a joint buying arrangement with McKesson, a pharmaceutical wholesaler (itself vertically integrated with Rexall pharmacies), to negotiate lower prices. The idea, presumably, is that Walmart will entice consumers to its stores with the lure of low-priced generic prescriptions in the hope that they will buy other items while they’re there. That prospect presumably makes it worthwhile to route around insurers and PBMs, and their reimbursements.
Meanwhile, both Express Scripts and CVS Health (two of the country’s largest PBMs) have made moves toward direct-to-consumer sales themselves, establishing pricing for a small number of drugs independently of health plans and often in partnership with drug makers directly.
Also apparently focused on disrupting traditional drug distribution arrangements, Amazon has recently purchased online pharmacy PillPack (out from under Walmart, as it happens), and with it received pharmacy licenses in 49 states. The move introduces a significant new integrated distributor/retailer, and puts competitive pressure on other retailers and distributors and potentially insurers and PBMs, as well.
Whatever its role in driving the CVS/Aetna merger (and I believe it is smaller than many reports like to suggest), Amazon’s moves in this area demonstrate the fluid nature of the market, and the opportunities for a wide range of firms to create efficiencies in the market and to lower prices.
At the same time, the differences between Amazon and CVS/Aetna highlight the scope of product and service differentiation that should contribute to the ongoing competitiveness of these markets following mergers like this one.
While Amazon inarguably excels at logistics and the routinizing of “back office” functions, it seems unlikely for the foreseeable future to be able to offer (or to be interested in offering) a patient interface that can rival the service offerings of a brick-and-mortar CVS pharmacy combined with an outpatient clinic and its staff and bolstered by the capabilities of an insurer like Aetna. To be sure, online sales and fulfillment may put price pressure on important, largely mechanical functions, but, like much technology, it is first and foremost a complement to services offered by humans, rather than a substitute. (In this regard it is worth noting that McKesson has long been offering Amazon-like logistics support for both online and brick-and-mortar pharmacies. “‘To some extent, we were Amazon before it was cool to be Amazon,’ McKesson CEO John Hammergren said” on a recent earnings call).
Other efforts focus on integrating insurance and treatment functions or on bringing together other, disparate pieces of the healthcare industry in interesting ways — all seemingly aimed at finding innovative, private solutions to solve some of the costly complexities that plague the healthcare market.
Walmart, for example, announced a deal with Quest Diagnostics last year to experiment with offering diagnostic testing services and potentially other basic healthcare services inside of some Walmart stores. While such an arrangement may simply be a means of making doctor-prescribed diagnostic tests more convenient, it may also suggest an effort to expand the availability of direct-to-consumer (patient-initiated) testing (currently offered by Quest in Missouri and Colorado) in states that allow it. A partnership with Walmart to market and oversee such services has the potential to dramatically expand their use.
Capping off (for now) a buying frenzy in recent years that included the purchase of PBM, CatamaranRx, UnitedHealth is seeking approval from the FTC for the proposed merger of its Optum unit with the DaVita Medical Group — a move that would significantly expand UnitedHealth’s ability to offer medical services (including urgent care, outpatient surgeries, and health clinic services), give it a significant group of doctors’ clinics throughout the U.S., and turn UnitedHealth into the largest employer of doctors in the country. But of course this isn’t a traditional managed care merger — it represents a significant bet on the decentralized, ambulatory care model that has been slowly replacing significant parts of the traditional, hospital-centric care model for some time now.
And, perhaps most interestingly, some recent moves are bringing together drug manufacturers and diagnostic and care providers in innovative ways. Swiss pharmaceutical company, Roche, announced recently that “it would buy the rest of U.S. cancer data company Flatiron Health for $1.9 billion to speed development of cancer medicines and support its efforts to price them based on how well they work.” Not only is the deal intended to improve Roche’s drug development process by integrating patient data, it is also aimed at accommodating efforts to shift the pricing of drugs, like the pricing of medical services generally, toward an outcome-based model.
Similarly interesting, and in a related vein, early this year a group of hospital systems including Intermountain Health, Ascension, and Trinity Health announced plans to begin manufacturing generic prescription drugs. This development further reflects the perceived benefits of vertical integration in healthcare markets, and the move toward creative solutions to the unique complexity of coordinating the many interrelated layers of healthcare provision. In this case,
[t]he nascent venture proposes a private solution to ensure contestability in the generic drug market and consequently overcome the failures of contracting [in the supply and distribution of generics]…. The nascent venture, however it solves these challenges and resolves other choices, will have important implications for the prices and availability of generic drugs in the US.
More enforcement decisions like CVS/Aetna and Bayer/Monsanto; fewer like AT&T/Time Warner
In the face of all this disruption, it’s difficult to credit anticompetitive fears like those expressed by the AMA in opposing the CVS-Aetna merger and a recent CEA report on pharmaceutical pricing, both of which are premised on the assumption that drug distribution is unavoidably dominated by a few PBMs in a well-defined, highly concentrated market. Creative arrangements like the CVS-Aetna merger and the initiatives described above (among a host of others) indicate an ease of entry, the fluidity of traditional markets, and a degree of business model innovation that suggest a great deal more competitiveness than static PBM market numbers would suggest.
This kind of incumbent innovation through vertical restructuring is an increasingly important theme in antitrust, and efforts to tar such transactions with purported evidence of static market dominance is simply misguided.
While the current DOJ’s misguided (and, remarkably, continuing) attempt to stop the AT&T/Time Warner merger is an aberrant step in the wrong direction, the leadership at the Antitrust Division generally seems to get it. Indeed, in spite of strident calls for stepped-up enforcement in the always-controversial ag-biotech industry, the DOJ recently approved three vertical ag-biotech mergers in fairly rapid succession.
As I noted in a discussion of those ag-biotech mergers, but equally applicable here, regulatory humility should continue to carry the day when it comes to structural innovation by incumbent firms:
But it is also important to remember that innovation comes from within incumbent firms, as well, and, often, that the overall level of innovation in an industry may be increased by the presence of large firms with economies of scope and scale.
In sum, and to paraphrase Olympia Dukakis’ character in Moonstruck: “what [we] don’t know about [the relationship between innovation and market structure] is a lot.”
What we do know, however, is that superficial, concentration-based approaches to antitrust analysis will likely overweight presumed foreclosure effects and underweight innovation effects.
We shouldn’t fetishize entry, or access, or head-to-head competition over innovation, especially where consumer welfare may be significantly improved by a reduction in the former in order to get more of the latter.
Jon Jacobson in his initial posting claims that it would be “hard to find an easier case” than Apple e-Books, and David Balto and Chris Sagers seem to agree. I suppose that would be true if, as Richard Epstein claims, “the general view is that horizontal arrangements are per se unlawful.”
That, however, is not the law, and has not been since William Howard Taft’s 1898 opinion in Addyston Pipe. In his opinion, borrowing from an earlier dissenting opinion by Justice Edward Douglas White in Trans-Missouri Freight Ass’n, Taft surveyed the common law of restraints of trade. He showed that it was already well established in 1898 that even horizontal restraints of trade were not necessarily unlawful if they were ancillary to some legitimate business transaction or arrangement.
Building on that opinion, the Supreme Court, in what is now a long series of decisions beginning with BMIand continuing through Actavis, has made it perfectly clear that even a horizontal restraint cannot be condemned as per se unlawful unless it is a “naked” restraint that, on its face, could not serve any “plausible” procompetitive business purpose. That there are many horizontal arrangements that are not per se unlawful is shown by the DOJ’s own Competitor Collaboration Guidelines, which provide many examples, including joint sales agents.
As I suggested in my initial posting, Apple may have dug its own grave by devoting so much effort to denying the obvious—namely, that it had helped facilitate a horizontal agreement among the publishers, just as the lower courts found. Apple might have had more success had it instead spent more time explaining why it needed a horizontal agreement among the publishers as to the terms on which they would designate Apple as their common sales agent in order for it to successfully enter the e-book market, and why those terms did not amount to a naked horizontal price fixing agreement. Had it done so, Apple likely could have made a stronger case for why a rule of reason review was necessary than it did by trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by insisting that its agreements were purely vertical.
In Philip K. Dick’s famous short story that inspired the Total Recall movies, a company called REKAL could implant “extra-factual memories” into the minds of anyone. That technology may be fictional, but the Apple eBooks case suggests that the ability to insert extra-factual memories into the courts already exists.
The Department of Justice, the Second Circuit majority, and even the Solicitor General’s most recent filing opposing cert. all assert that the large publishing houses invented a new “agency” business model as a way to provide leverage to raise prices, and then pushed it on Apple.
The basis of the government’s claim is that Apple had “just two months to develop a business model” once Steve Jobs had approved the “iBookstore” ebook marketplace. The government implies that Apple was a company so obviously old, inept, and out-of-ideas that it had to rely on the big publishers for an innovative business model to help it enter the market. And the court bought it “wholesale,” as it were. (Describing Apple’s “a-ha” moment when it decided to try the agency model, the court notes, “[n]otably, the possibility of an agency arrangement was first mentioned by Hachette and HarperCollins as a way ‘to fix Amazon pricing.'”)
The claim has no basis in reality, of course. Apple had embraced the agency model long before, as it sought to disrupt the way software was distributed. In just the year prior, Apple had successfully launched the app store, a ground-breaking example of the agency model that started with only 500 apps but had grown to more than 100,000 in 12 months. This was an explosion of competition — remember, nearly all of those apps represented a new publisher: 100,000 new potential competitors.
So why would the government create such an absurd fiction?
Because without that fiction, Apple moves from “conspirator” to “competitor.” Instead of anticompetitive scourge, it becomes a disruptor, bringing new competition to an existing market with a single dominant player (Amazon Kindle), and shattering the control held by the existing publishing industry.
More than a decade before the App Store, software developers had observed that the wholesale model for distribution created tremendous barriers for entry, increased expense, and incredible delays in getting to market. Developers were beholden to a tiny number of physical stores that sold shelf space and required kickbacks (known as spiffs). Today, there are legions of developers producing App content, and developers have earned more than $10 billion in sales through Apple’s App Store. Anyone with an App idea or, moreover, an idea for a book, can take it straight to consumers rather than having to convince a publisher, wholesaler or retailer that it is worth purchasing and marketing.
This disintermediation is of critical benefit to consumers — and yet the Second Circuit missed it. The court chose instead to focus on the claim that if the horizontal competitors conspired, then Apple, which had approached the publishers to ensure initial content would exist at time of launch, was complicit. Somehow Apple could be a horizontal competitor even through it wasn’t part of the publishing industry!
There was another significant consumer and competitive benefit from Apple’s entry into the market and the shift to the agency model. Prior to the Apple iPad, truly interactive books were mostly science fiction, and the few pilot projects that existed had little consumer traction. Amazon, which held 90% of the electronic books market, chose to focus on creating technology that mirrored the characteristics of reading on paper: a black and white screen and the barest of annotation capabilities.
When the iPad was released, Apple sent up a signal flag that interactivity would be a focal point of the technology by rolling out tools that would allow developers to access the iPad’s accelerometer and touch sensitive screen to create an immersive experience. The result? Products that help children with learning disabilities, and competitors fighting back with improved products.
Finally, Apple’s impact on consumers and competition was profound. Amazon switched, as well, and the nascent world of self publishing exploded. Books like Hugh Howey’s Wool series (soon to be a major motion picture) were released as smaller chunks for only 99 cents. And “the Martian,” which is up for several Academy Awards found a home and an audience long before any major publisher came calling.
We all need to avoid the trip to REKAL and remember what life was like before the advent of the agency model. Because if the Second Circuit decision is allowed to stand, the implication for any outside competitor looking to disrupt a market is as grim and barren as the surface of Mars.
The Apple e-books case is throwback to Dr. Miles, the 1911 Supreme Court decision that managed to misinterpret the economics of competition and so thwart productive activity for over a century. The active debate here at TOTM reveals why.
The District Court and Second Circuit have employed a per se rule to find that the Apple e-books agreement with five major publishers constituted a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Citing the active cooperation in contract negotiations involving multiple horizontal competitors (publishers) and the Apple offer, which appears to have raised prices paid for e-books, the conclusion that this is a case of horizontal collusion appears a slam dunk to some. “Try as one may,” writes Jonathan Jacobson, “it is hard to find an easier antitrust case than United States v. Apple.”
I’m guessing that that is what Charles Evans Hughes thought about the Dr. Miles case in 1911.
First, the Second Circuit verdict was not only a split decision on application of the per se rule, the dissent ably stated a case for why the Apple e-books deal should be regarded as pro-competitive and, thus, legal.
Second, the price increase cited as determinative occurred in a two-sided market; the fact asserted does not establish a monopolistic restriction of output. Further analysis, as called for under the rule of reason, is needed to flesh out the totality of the circumstances and the net impact of the Apple-publisher agreement on consumer welfare. That includes evidence regarding what happens to total revenues as market structure and prices change.
Third, a new entrant emerged as per the actions undertaken — the agreements pointedly did not “lack…. any redeeming virtue” (Northwest Wholesale Stationers, 1985), the justification for per se illegality. The fact that a new platform — Apple challenging Amazon’s e-book dominance — was both cause and effect of the alleged anti-competitive behavior is a textbook example of ancillarity. The “naked restraints” that publishers might have imposed had Apple not brought new products and alternative content distribution channels into the mix thus dressed up. It is argued by some that the clothes were skimpy. But that fashion statement is what a rule of reason analysis is needed to determine.
Fourth, the successful market foray that came about in the two-sided e-book market is a competitive victory not to be trifled. As the Supreme Court determined in Leegin: A “per se rule cannot be justified by the possibility of higher prices absent a further showing of anticompetitive conduct. The antitrust laws are designed to protect interbrand competition from which lower prices can later result.” The Supreme Court need here overturn U.S. v. Apple as decided by the Second Circuit in order that the “later result” be reasonably examined.
Fifth, lock-in is avoided with a rule of reason. As the Supreme Court said in Leegin:
As courts gain experience considering the effects of these restraints by applying the rule of reason… they can establish the litigation structure to ensure the rule operates to eliminate anticompetitive restraints….
The lock-in, conversely, comes with per se rules that nip the analysis in the bud, assuming simplicity where complexity obtains.
Sixth, Judge Denise Cote, who issued the District Court ruling against Apple, shows why the rule of reason is needed to counter her per se approach:
Here we have every necessary component: with Apple’s active encouragement and assistance, the Publisher Defendants agreed to work together to eliminate retail price competition and raise e-book prices, and again with Apple’s knowing and active participation, they brought their scheme to fruition.
But that cannot be “every necessary component.” It is not in Apple’s interest to raise prices, but to lower prices paid. Something more has to be going on. Indeed, in raising prices the judge unwittingly cites an unarguable pro-competitive aspect of Apple’s foray: It is competing with Amazon and bidding resources from a rival. Indeed, the rival is, arguably, an incumbent with market power. This cannot be the end of the analysis. That it is constitutes a throwback to the anti-competitive per se rule of Dr. Miles.
Seventh, in oral arguments at the Second Circuit, Judge Raymond J. Lohier, Jr. directed a question to Justice Department counsel, asking how Apple and the publishers “could have broken Amazon’s monopoly of the e-book market without violating antitrust laws.” The DOJ attorney responded, according to an article in The New Yorker, by advising that
Apple could have let the competition among companies play out naturally without pursuing explicit strategies to push prices higher—or it could have sued, or complained to the Justice Department and to federal regulatory authorities.
But the DOJ itself brought no complaint against Amazon — it, instead, sued Apple. And the admonition that an aggressive innovator should sit back and let things “play out naturally” is exactly what will kill efficiency enhancing “creative destruction.” Moreover, the government’s view that Apple “pursued an explicit strategy to push prices higher” fails to acknowledge that Apple was the buyer. Such as it was, Apple’s effort was to compete, luring content suppliers from a rival. The response of the government is to recommend, on the one hand, litigation it will not itself pursue and, on the other, passive acceptance that avoids market disruption. It displays the error, as Judge Jacobs’ Second Circuit dissent puts it, “That antitrust law is offended by gloves off competition.” Why might innovation not be well served by this policy?
Eighth, the choice of rule of reason does not let Apple escape scrutiny, but applies it to both sides of the argument. It adds important policy symmetry. Dr. Miles impeded efficient market activity for nearly a century. The creation of new platforms in Internet markets ought not to have such handicaps. It should be recalled that, in introducing its iTunes platform and its vertically linked iPod music players, circa 2002, the innovative Apple likewise faced attack from competition policy makers (more in Europe, indeed, than the U.S.). Happily, progress in the law had loosened barriers to business model innovation, and the revolutionary ecosystem was allowed to launch. Key to that progressive step was the bulk bargain struck with music labels. Richard Epstein thinks that such industry-wide dealing now endangers Apple’s more recent platform launch. Perhaps. But there is no reason to jump to that conclusion, and much to find out before we embrace it.
United States v. Apple has fascinated me continually ever since the instantly-sensational complaint was made public, more than three years ago. Just one small, recent manifestation of the larger theme that makes it so interesting is the improbable range of folks who apparently consider certiorari rather likely—not least some commenters here, and even SCOTUSblog, which listed the case on their “Petitions We’re Watching.” It seems improbable, I say, not because reasonable people couldn’t differ on the policy issues. In this day and age somebody pops up to doubt every antitrust case brought against anybody no matter what. Rather, on the traditional criteria, the case just seems really ill-suited for cert.[*]
But it is in keeping with the larger story that people might expect the Court to take this basically hum-drum fact case in which there’s no circuit split. People have been savaging this case since its beginnings, despite the fact that to almost all antitrust lawyers it was such a legal slam dunk that so long as the government could prove its facts, it couldn’t lose.
And so I’m left with questions I’ve been asking since the case came out. Why, given the straightforward facts, nicely fitting a per se standard generally thought to be well-settled, involving conduct that on the elaborate trial record had no plausible effect except a substantial price increase,[**] do so many people hate this case? Why, more specifically, do so many people think there is something special about it, such that it shouldn’t be subject to the same rules that would apply to anybody else who did what these defendants did?
To be clear, I think the case is interesting. Big time. But what is interesting is not its facts or the underlying conduct or anything about book publishing or technological change or any of that. In other words, I don’t think the case is special. Like Jonathan Jacobson, I think it is simple. What is remarkable is the reactions it has generated, across the political spectrum.
In the years of its pendency, on any number of panels and teleconferences and brown-bags and so on we’ve heard BigLaw corporate defense lawyers talking about the case like they’re Louis Brandeis. The problem, you see, is not a naked horizontal producer cartel coordinated by a retail entrant with a strong incentive to discipline its retail rival. No, no, no. The problem was actually Amazon, and the problem with Amazon was that it is big. Moreover, this case is about entry, they say, and entry is what antitrust is all about. Entry must be good, because numerosity in and of itself is competition. Consider too the number of BigLaw antitrust partners who’ve publicly argued that Amazon is in fact a monopolist, and that it engaged in predatory pricing, of all things.
When has anyone ever heard this group of people talk like that?
For another example, consider how nearly identical have been the views of left-wing critics like the New America Foundation’s Barry Lynn to those of the Second Circuit dissenter in Apple, the genteel, conservative Bush appointee, Judge Dennis Jacobs. They both claim, as essentially their only argument, that Amazon is a powerful firm, which can be tamed only if publishers can set their own retail prices (even if they do so collusively).
And there are so many other examples. The government’s case was condemned by no less than a Democrat and normally pro-enforcement member of the Senate antitrust committee, as it was by two papers as otherwise divergent as the Wall Street Journaland the New York Times. Meanwhile, the damnedest thing about the case, as I’ll show in a second, is that it frequently causes me to talk like Robert Bork.
So what the hell is going on?
I have a theory. We in America have almost as our defining character, almost uniquely among developed nations, a commitment to markets, competition, and individual enterprise. But we tend to forget until a case like Apple reminds us that markets, when they work as they are supposed to, are machines for producing pain. Firms fail, people lose jobs, valuable institutions—like, perhaps, the paper book—are sometimes lost. And it can be hard to believe that such a free, decentralized mess will somehow magically optimize organization, distribution, and innovation. I think the reason people find a case like Apple hard to support is that, because we find all that loss and anarchy so hard to swallow, we as a people do not actually believe in competition at all.
I think it helps in making this point to work through the individual arguments that the Apple defendants and their supporters have made, in court and out. For my money, what we find is not only that most of the arguments are not really that strong, but that they are the same arguments that all defendants make, all the time. As it turns out, there has never been an antitrust defendant that didn’t think its market was special.
Taking the arguments I’ve heard, roughly in increasing order of plausibility:
Should it matter that discipline of Amazon’s aggressive pricing might help keep the publisher defendants in business? Hardly. While the lamentations of the publishers seem overblown—they may be forced to adapt, and it may not be painless, but that is much more likely at the moment than their insolvency—if they are forced out because they cannot compete on a price basis, then that is exactly what is supposed to happen. Econ 101.
Was Apple’s entry automatically good just because it was entry? Emphatically no. There is no rule in antitrust that entry is inherently good, and a number of strong rules to the contrary (consider, for example, the very foundation of the Brook Group predation standard, which is that we should provide no legal protection to less efficient competitors, including entrants). That is for a simple reason: entry is good when causes quality-adjusted price to go down. The opposite occurred in Apple[***]
Is Amazon the real villain, so obviously that we should allow its suppliers to regulate its power through horizontal cartel? I rather think not. While I have no doubt that Amazon is a dangerous entity, that probably will merit scrutiny on any number of grounds now or in the future, it seems implausible that it priced e-books predatorily, surely not on the legal standard that currently prevails in the United States. In fact, an illuminating theme in The Everything Store, Brad Stone’s comprehensive study of the company, was the ubiquity of supplier allegations of Amazon’s predation in all kinds of products, complaints that have gone on throughout the company’s two-decade existence. I don’t believe Amazon is any hero or that it poses no threats, but what it’s done in these cases is just charge lower prices. It’s been able to do so in a sustained manner mainly through innovation in distribution. And in any case, whether Amazon is big and bad or whatever, the right tool to constrain it is not a price fixing cartel. No regulator cares less about the public interest.
Does it make the case special in some way that a technological change drove the defendants to their conspiracy? No. The technological change afoot was in effect just a change in costs. It is much cheaper to deliver content electronically than in hard copy, not least because as things have unfolded, consumers have actually paid for and own most of the infrastructure. To that extent there’s nothing different about Apple than any case in which an innovation in production or distribution has given one player a cost advantage. In fact, the publishers’ primary need to defend against pricing of e-books at some measure of their actual cost is that the publishers’ whole structure is devoted to an expensive intermediating function that becomes largely irrelevant with digital distribution.
Is there reason to believe that a horizontal cartel orchestrated by a powerful distributor will achieve better quality-adjusted prices, which I take to be Geoff Manne’s overall theme? I mean, come on. This is essentially a species of destructive competition argument, that otherwise healthy markets can be so little trusted efficiently to supply products that customers want that we’ll put the government to a full rule of reason challenge to attack a horizontal cartel? Do we believe in competition at all?
Should it matter that valuable cultural institutions may be at risk, including the viability of paper books, independent bookstores, and perhaps the livelihoods of writers or even literature itself? This seems more troubling than the other points, but hardly is unique to the case or a particularly good argument for self-help by cartel. Consider, if you will, another, much older case. The sailing ship industry was thousands of years old and of great cultural and human significance when it met its demise in the 1870s at the hands of the emerging steamship industry. Ships that must await the fickle winds cannot compete with those that can offer the reliable, regular departures that shipper customers desire. There followed a period of desperate price war following which the sail industry was destroyed. That was sad, because tall-masted sailing ships are very swashbuckling and fun, and were entwined in our literature and culture. But should we have allowed the two industries to fix their prices, to preserve sailing ships as a living technology?
There are other arguments, and we could keep working through them one by one, but the end result is the same. The arguments mostly are weak, and even those with a bit more heft do nothing more than pose the problem inherent in that very last point. Healthy markets sometimes produce pain, with genuinely regrettable consequences. But that just forces us to ask: do we believe in competition or don’t we?
[*] Except possibly for one narrow issue, Apple is at this point emphatically a fact case, and the facts were resolved on an extensive record by an esteemed trial judge, in a long and elaborate opinion, and left undisturbed on appeal (even in the strongly worded dissent). The one narrow issue that is actually a legal one, and that Apple mainly stresses in its petition—whether in the wake of Leeginthe hub in a hub-and-spoke arrangement can face per se liability—is one on which I guess people could plausibly disagree. But even when that is the case this Court virtually never grants cert. in the absence of a significant circuit split, and here there isn’t one.
Apple points only to one other Circuit decision, the Third Circuit’s Toledo Mack. It is true as Apple argues that a passage in Toledo Mack seemed to read language from Leegin fairly broadly, and to apply even when there is horizontal conspiracy at the retail level. But Toledo Mack was not a hub-and-spoke case. While plaintiff alleged a horizontal conspiracy among retailers of heavy trucks, and Mack Trucks later acquiescence in it, Mack played no role in coordinating the conspiracy. Separately, whether Toledo Mack really conflicts with Apple or not, the law supporting the old per se rule against hub-and-spoke conspiracies is pretty strong (take a look, for example, at pp. 17-18 of the Justice Department’s opposition brief.
So, I suppose one might think there is no distinction between a hub-and-spoke and a case like Toledo Mack, in which a manufacturer merely agreed after the fact to assist an existing retail conspiracy, and that there is therefore a circuit split, but that would be rather in contrast to a lot of Supreme Court authority. On the other hand, if there is some legal difference between a hub-and-spoke and the facts of Toledo Mack, then Toledo Mack is relevant only if it is understood to have read Leegin to apply to all “vertical” conduct, including true hub-and-spoke agreements. But that would be a broad reading indeed of both Leegin and Toledo Mack. It would require believing that Leegin reversed sub silentio a number of important decisions on an issue that was not before the Court in Leegin. It would also make a circuit split out of a point that would be only dicta in Toledo Mack. And yes, yes, yes, I know, Judge Jacobs in dissent below himself said that his panel’s decision created a circuit split with Toledo Mack. But I mean, come on. A circuit split means that two holdings are in conflict, not that one bit of dicta commented on some other bit of dicta.
A whole different reason cert. seems improbable is that the issue presented is whether per se treatment was appropriate. But the trial court specifically found the restraint to have been unreasonable under a rule of reason standard. Of course that wouldn’t preclude the Court from reversing the trial court’s holding that the per se rule applies, but it would render a reversal almost certainly academic in the case actually before the Court.
Don’t get me wrong. Nothing the courts do really surprises me anymore, and there are still four members of the Court, even in the wake of Justice Scalia’s passing, who harbor open animosity for antitrust and a strong fondness for Leegin. It is also plausible that those four will see the case Apple’s way, and favor reversing Interstate Circuit (though that seems unlikely to me; read a case like Ticoror North Carolina Dental Examiners if you want to know how Anthony Kennedy feels about naked cartel conduct). But the ideological affinities of the Justices, in and of themselves, just don’t usually turn an otherwise ordinary case into a cert-worthy one.
[**] Yes, yes, yes, Grasshopper, I know, Apple argued that in fact its entry increased quality and consumer choice, and also put on an argument that the output of e-books actually expanded during the period of the publishers’ conspiracy. But, a couple of things. First, as the government observed in some juicy briefing in the case, and Judge Cote found in specific findings, each of Apple’s purported quality enhancements turned out to involve either other firms’ innovations or technological enhancements that appeared in the iPad before Apple ever communicated with the publishers. As for the expanded output argument, it was fairly demolished by the government’s experts, a finding not disturbed even in Judge Jacobs’ dissent.
In any case, any benefit Apple did manage to supply came at the cost of a price increase of fifty freaking percent, across thousands of titles, that were sustained for the entire two years that the conspiracy survived.
[***] There have also been the usual squabbles over factual details that are said to be very important, but these points are especially uninteresting. E.g., the case involved “MFNs” and “agency contracts,” and there is supposed to be some magic in either their vertical nature or the great uncertainty of their consequences that count against per se treatment. There isn’t. Neither the government’s complaint, the district court, nor the Second Circuit attacked the bilateral agreements in and of themselves; on the contrary, both courts emphatically stressed that they only found illegal the horizontal price fixing conspiracy and Apple’s role in coordinating it.
Likewise, some stress that the publisher defendants in fact earned slightly less per price-fixed book under their agency agreements than they had with Apple. Why would they do that, if there weren’t some pro-competitive reason? Simple. The real money in trade publishing was not then or now in the puny e-book sector, but in hard-cover, new-release best sellers, which publishers have long sold at very significant mark-ups over cost. Those margins were threatened by Amazon’s very low e-book prices, and the loss on agency sales was worth it to preserve the real money makers.
The “magic” of Washington can only go so far. Whether it is political consultants trying to create controversy where there is basic consensus, such as in parts of the political campaign, or the earnest effort to create a controversy over the Apple decision, there may be lots of words exchanged and animated discussion by political and antitrust pundits, but at the end of the day it’s much ado about not much. For the Apple case, even though this blog has attracted some of the keenest creative antitrust thinkers, a simple truth remains – there was overwhelming evidence that there was a horizontal agreement among suppliers and that Apple participated or even led the agreement as a seller. This is, by definition, a hub-and-spoke conspiracy that resulted in horizontal price fixing among ebook suppliers – an activity worthy of per se treatment.
The simplicity of this case belies the controversy of the ruling and the calls for Supreme Court review. Those that support Apple’s petition for certiorari seem to think that the case is a good vehicle to address important questions of policy in the law. Indeed, ICLE submitted an excellent brief making just such a case. But, unfortunately, the facts of this case are not great for resolving these problems.
For example, some would like to look at this case not as a horizontal price fixing agreement among competitors facilitated by a vertical party, but instead as a series of vertical agreements. This is very tempting, because the antitrust revolution was built on the back of fixing harmful precedent of per se condemnation of vertical restraints. Starting with GTE Sylvania, the Supreme Court has repeatedly applied modern economic learning to vertical restraints and found that there are numerous potential procompetitive benefits that must be accounted for in any proper antitrust analysis of a vertical agreement.
This view of the Apple e-book case is especially tempting because the Supreme Court’s work in this area of the law is not done. For example, the Supreme Court needs to update the law on exclusive dealing and loyalty discounts to reflect post-GTE Sylvania thinking, something I have written extensively on (including here at TOTM: here, here and here) in the context of the McWane case. (Which is also up for cert review). However, the facts of this case simply make this a bad case to resolve any matter of vertical restraint law. Apple was not approaching publishers individually, but aggressively orchestrating a scheme that immediately raised e-book prices by 30% and ensured that Apple’s store could not be undercut by any competitor. Consumers were very obviously harmed and the horizontal price fixing conspiracy could not have taken place without Apple’s involvement.
Of course in the court of public opinion (which is not an antitrust court) Apple attempted to wear the garb of the Robin Hood for consumers suggesting it was just trying to respond to Amazon’s dominance over ebooks. But the Justice Department and the court quickly saw through that guise. The proper response to market dominance is to compete harder. And that’s what happened. Apple’s successful entry into the e-book market seems to provide a more effective response than any cartel. But this does not show that there were procompetitive benefits of Apple’s anticompetitive actions worthy of rule of reason treatment. To the contrary, prices rose and output fell during the conduct at issue – exactly what one would expect to see following anticompetitive activities.
This argument also presupposes that Amazon’s dominance was bad for consumers. This is refuted by Scalia in Trinko:
The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices–at least for a short period–is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth. To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.
The other problem with this line of thinking is that it suggests that it is OK to violate the antitrust laws to prevent a rival from charging too low of a price. This would obviously be bad policy. If Amazon was maintaining its dominant position through anticompetitive conduct, then there exists recourse in the law. As the old adage states, two wrongs do not make a right.
The main problem with the Apple e-book case is that it is a very simple case that lightly brushes against up against areas of law that and questions of policy that are attractive for Supreme Court review. There are important policy issues that still need to be addressed by the Supreme Court, but these facts don’t present them.
The Supreme Court does have an important job in helping antitrust law evolve in a sensible fashion. But this case is a soggy appetizer when there is a much more engaging main course about to be served. A cert petition has been filed in the FTC’s case against McWane, which provides a chance to update the law of exclusive dealing which the Court has not grappled with since the days of Sputnik (Only a slight exaggeration). And in McWane the most important business groups Including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have explained that the confusion and obscurity in this area and the mischief of the lower court’s decisions create real impediments to procompetitive conduct. Professors of law and economics (including several TOTM authors) also wrote in support of the petition.
The Court should skip the appetizer and get to the main course.
For a few months I have thought that the Apple eBooks case would find an easy fit within the Supreme Court’s antitrust decisions. The case that seems closest to me is Business Electronics v. Sharp Electronics, an unfortunately under-appreciated piece of antitrust precedent. One sign of its under-appreciation is its absence in some recent editions of antitrust casebooks.
In Business Electronics, the Court looked at a vertical relationship in which a manufacturer agreed with one of its retailers to terminate another retailer for failing to comply with the manufacturer’s suggested minimum prices. The Court held that such an agreement could not be ruled per se illegal unless the plaintiff could prove that the non-terminated retailer had agreed with the manufacturer to set its resale price at some level. The Court was reluctant to apply the per se test to this sort of case because of the potential efficiencies that might justify the manufacturer’s minimum retail prices. To allow some leeway for these efficiencies to be realized, the Court erected a high burden of proof under the per se test. Now, of course, the Court no longer applies the per se test to vertical arrangements like that in Business Electronics because of its decision in Leegin to adopt rule of reason analysis for vertical restraints.
The Apple eBooks case falls under Business Electronics. Apple offered the book publishers a contract that left Amazon with a choice of complying with a pricing system closer to the publisher’s preferences or terminating its relationship with the publishers. In other words, the Apple contract, with its famous most-favored-nations clause, effectively presented Amazon with an ultimatum similar to the one observed in Business Electronics. The ultimatum worked: Amazon was forced to comply with the pricing scheme preferred by the publishers and Apple. It follows from Business Electronics, and from Leegin, that the burden of proof in this case should be set high – a bit higher than the trial court set it in this case. Further, Leegin suggests that rule of reason analysis should apply because the relationship at issue is vertical.
Justice Scalia’s passing may have affected the Apple eBooks case already. Scalia was the author of Business Electronics, and presumably the Supreme Court Justice most likely to have noticed the similarity between Business Electronics and Apple eBooks.
In October of last year, I had the chance to interview Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry from the stage at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and I asked him whether his 2009 concerns that low e-book prices would devalue the book—the driving factor behind the alleged e-book price-fixing conspiracy—were in the the past. After all, much has changed over the last six years.
Nourry was resolute in his response.
When you lose control over your price point you are on the way to death. We have to be very careful and never think it is behind us. We are still concerned. And I am glad that there is a consensus among major publishers that we should keep control.
As the non-lawyer here, I’m necessarily going to take a slightly different approach to today’s symposium. But I want to be clear, right up front: However the Supreme Court dispatches with Apple’s appeal in it e-book price-fixing case, whether the court declines to take up the appeal, or ultimately reverses, it is going to have little effect on the e-book market.
Even though it triggered a high profile antitrust case, and two years of market sanctions, Apple’s 2010 scheme with publishers to eliminate retail price competition from the e-book market ultimately succeeded. Today, the Big Five publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House) now control the consumer prices of their e-books. Apple does not have to worry about the iBookstore being undercut on price by Amazon. And Amazon’s main competitive advantage has been blunted—its $9.99 price on bestselling new release e-books—“that pitiful, paltry price,” as Daily Beast co-founder Tina Brown once called it—is history. Frontlist e-books now retail for as high as $14.99.
So, how is the e-book market faring, post-Apple? It’s been a mixed bag. On one hand, e-book sales from the Big Five publishers declined in 2015. For Nourry’s company, Hachette, digital sales (including digital audio) accounted for 22% of trade sales last year, down from 26% in 2014. So much for Steve Jobs’ 2010 prediction that Apple would usher in a “mainstream e-book revolution.”
On the other hand, print sales are up. Publishers say the dip in e-book sales and the rebound of print is a sign that the book market that is beginning to find its balance. And while they concede that higher e-book prices are clearly playing a role in the market’s re-balancing act, it is still too early to tell to what degree price or other factors are driving format choices in the publishing market.
For me, the interesting question is where we go from here. In 2016, for the first time in the modern e-book market’s short history, there are no major disruptions on the horizon: no game-changing device like the iPad; no fundamental changes coming in the retail market (like the agency model); no looming negotiations with Amazon (for now); no court-imposed e-book discounting. With fewer thumbs on the scale, the next two years are poised to present the clearest picture yet of the demand for e-books, what prices work, or don’t, the viability of emerging new channels such as subscription access, where the competitive fault lines truly lie.
In that light, the narrow legal question before the Supreme Court in Apple’s appeal—whether a vertical firm that organizes a price-fixing conspiracy among its suppliers can be condemned as per se liable—feels anticlimactic, and largely academic. Sure, there is $400 million in consumer refunds at stake, per Apple’s settlement with the states and consumer class. But here’s what’s not at stake: the future of innovation.
Despite some outstanding work by Apple’s counsel, and some outraged editorials and amicus briefs, this case has never been about innovation, new technology, or novel business arrangements in emerging markets. When the publishers first agreed to Apple’s terms, they had yet to even see an iPad, or the iBookstore. And there is no dispute that the iPad was going to be used as an e-reading device regardless of whether or not Apple got into e-book retailing.
Rather, as Macmillan CEO John Sargent once suggested in an email, the benefit of the iPad was that its launch presented a singular opportunity to change the business model for e-books—to wrest pricing control from Amazon, and to raise e-book prices to levels they considered “rational.”
While it is a compelling narrative, it seems highly unlikely to me that upholding per se liability in this case would discourage tech companies from innovating or striking novel new arrangements in emerging digital markets. Again, I am no lawyer. But isn’t the greater concern that, if vindicated, Apple’s scheme would essentially serve as a blueprint for large vertical players to work with major suppliers to eliminate retail price competition from nascent markets?
I keep going back to U.S. attorney Mark Ryan’s closing argument at Apple’s trial. Who knows, Ryan argued, how the market would have solved Amazon’s $9.99 problem? That, it seems to me, remains the key question.
Andrew Richard Albanese is Senior Writer for Publishers Weekly and the author of The Battle of $9.99: How Apple, Amazon, and the Big Six Publishers Changed the E-Book Business Overnight.
As ICLE argued in its amicus brief, the Second Circuit’s ruling in United States v. Apple Inc. 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. Moreover, 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. The Court should grant certiorari.
The Second Circuit committed a number of 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. The use of MFNs 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 court of appeals emphasized that in some cases e-book prices increased after Apple’s entry, and it viewed that fact as strong support for application of the per se rule. But the Court in Leegin made clear that the per se rule is inappropriate where, as here, “prices can be increased in the course of promoting procompetitive effects.”
What the Second Circuit missed is that competition occurs on many planes other than price; higher prices do not necessarily suggest decreased competition or anticompetitive effects. As Josh Wright points out:
[T]the multi-dimensional nature of competition implies that antitrust analysis seeking to maximize consumer or total welfare must inevitably calculate welfare tradeoffs when innovation and price effects run in opposite directions.
Higher prices may accompany welfare-enhancing “competition on the merits,” resulting in greater investment in product quality, reputation, innovation, or distribution mechanisms.
While the court acknowledged that “[n]o court can presume to know the proper price of an ebook,” its analysis nevertheless rested on the presumption that Amazon’s prices before Apple’s entry were competitive. The record, however, offered no support for that presumption, and thus no support for the inference that post-entry price increases were anticompetitive.
[P]roof that a restraint alters price or output when compared to the status quo ante is at least equally consistent with an alternative explanation, namely, that the agreement under scrutiny corrects a market failure and does not involve the exercise or creation of market power. Because such failures can result in prices that are below the optimum, or output that is above it, contracts that correct or attenuate market failure will often increase prices or reduce output when compared to the status quo ante. As a result, proof that such a restraint alters price or other terms of trade is at least equally consistent with a procompetitive explanation, and thus cannot give rise to a prima facie case under settled antitrust doctrine.
Before Apple’s entry, Amazon controlled 90% of the e-books market, and the publishers had for years been unable to muster sufficient bargaining power to renegotiate the terms of their contracts with Amazon. At the same time, Amazon’s pricing strategies as a nascent platform developer in a burgeoning market (that it was, in practical effect, trying to create) likely did not always produce prices that would be optimal under evolving market conditions as the market matured. The fact that prices may have increased following the alleged anticompetitive conduct cannot support an inference that the conduct was anticompetitive.
Third, the Second Circuit also made a mistake in dismissing Apple’s defenses. The court asserted that
this defense — that higher prices enable more competitors to enter a market — is no justification for a horizontal price‐fixing conspiracy.
But the court is incorrect. As Bill Kolasky points out in his post, it is well-accepted that otherwise-illegal agreements that are ancillary to a procompetitive transaction should be evaluated under the rule of reason.
It was not that Apple couldn’t enter unless Amazon’s prices (and its own) were increased. Rather, the contention made by Apple was that it could not enter unless it was able to attract a critical mass of publishers to its platform – a task which required some sharing of information among the publishers – and unless it was able to ensure that Amazon would not artificially lower its prices to such an extent that it would prevent Apple from attracting a critical mass of readers to its platform. The MFN and the agency model were thus ancillary restraints that facilitated the transactions between Apple and the publishers and between Apple and iPad purchasers. In this regard they are appropriately judged under the rule of reason and, under the rule of reason, offer a valid procompetitive justification for the restraints.
And it was the fact of Apple’s entry, not the use of vertical restraints in its contracts, that enabled the publishers to wield the bargaining power sufficient to move Amazon to the agency model. The court itself noted that the introduction of the iPad and iBookstore “gave publishers more leverage to negotiate for alternative sales models or different pricing.” And as Ben Klein noted at trial,
Apple’s entry probably gave the publishers an increased ability to threaten [Amazon sufficiently that it accepted the agency model]…. The MFN [made] a trivial change in the publishers’ incentives…. The big change that occurs is the change on the other side of the bargaining situation after Apple comes in where Amazon now cannot just tell them no.
Fourth, the purpose of applying the per se rule is to root out activities that always or almost always harm competition. Although it’s possible that a horizontal agreement that facilitates entry and increases competition could be subject to the per se rule, in this case its application was inappropriate. The novelty of Apple’s arrangement with the publishers, coupled with the weakness of proof of any sort of actual price fixing fails to meet even a minimal threshold that would require application of the per se rule.
Not all horizontal arrangements are per se illegal. If an arrangement is relatively novel, facilitates entry, and is patently different from naked price fixing, it should be reviewed under the rule of reason. SeeBMI. All of those conditions are met here.
The conduct of the publishers – distinct from their agreements with Apple – to find some manner of changing their contracts with Amazon is not itself price fixing, either. The prices themselves would be set only subsequent to whatever new contracts were adopted. At worst, the conduct of the publishers in working toward new contracts with Amazon can be characterized as a facilitating practice.
But even then, the precedent of the Court counsels against applying the per se rule to facilitating practices such as the mere dissemination of price information or, as in this case, information regarding the parties’ preferred, bilateral, contractual relationships. As the Second Circuit itself once held, following the Supreme Court,
[the] exchange of information is not illegal per se, but can be found unlawful under a rule of reason analysis.
In other words, even the behavior of the publishers should be analyzed under a rule of reason – and Apple’s conduct in facilitating that behavior cannot be imbued with complicity in a price-fixing scheme that may not have existed at all.
Fifth, in order for conduct to “eliminate price competition,” there must be price competition to begin with. But as the district court itself noted, the publishers do not compete on price. This point is oft-overlooked in discussions of the case. It is perhaps possible to say that the contract terms at issue and the publishers’ pressure on Amazon affected price competition between Apple and Amazon – but even then it cannot be said to have reduced competition, because, absent Apple’s entry, there was no competition at all between Apple and Amazon.
It’s true that, if all Apple’s entry did was to transfer identical e-book sales from Amazon to Apple, at higher prices and therefore lower output, it might be difficult to argue that Apple’s entry was procompetitive. But the myopic focus on e-book titles without consideration of product differentiation is mistaken, as well.
The relevant competition here is between Apple and Amazon at the platform level. As explained above, it is misleading to look solely at prices in evaluating the market’s competitiveness. Provided that switching costs are low enough and information about the platforms is available to consumers, consumer welfare may have been enhanced by competition between the platforms on a range of non-price dimensions, including, for example: the Apple iBookstore’s distinctive design, Apple’s proprietary file format, features on Apple’s iPad that were unavailable on Kindle Readers, Apple’s use of a range of marketing incentives unavailable to Amazon, and Apple’s algorithmic matching between its data and consumers’ e-book purchases.
While it’s difficult to disentangle Apple’s entry from other determinants of consumers’ demand for e-books, and even harder to establish with certainty the “but-for” world, it is nonetheless telling that the e-book market has expanded significantly since Apple’s entry, and that purchases of both iPads and Kindles have increased, as well.
There is, in other words, no clear evidence that consumers viewed the two products as perfect substitutes, and thus there is no evidence that Apple’s entry merely caused a non-welfare-enhancing substitution from Amazon to Apple. At minimum, there is no basis for treating the contract terms that facilitated Apple’s entry under a per se standard.
The point, in sum, is that there is in fact substantial evidence that Apple’ entry was pro-competitive, that there was no price-fixing scheme of which Apple was a part, and absolutely no evidence that the vertical restraints at issue in the case were the sort that should presumptively give rise to liability. Not only was application of the per se rule inappropriate, but, to answer Richard Epstein, there is strong evidence that Apple should win under a rule of reason analysis, as well.