After Monday’s opening statements in the government’s federal antitrust case against Apple — stemming from Apple’s game-changing foray into the then nascent ebooks market in 2010 — it’s apparent that the case raises novel legal questions that could well end up commanding the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court.
For casual observers of the case, this had not been so obvious before. That’s because the legal questions raised by the conduct of the five publishing companies who were also originally named as Apple’s co-conspirators and co-defendants in the case – Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster – did not pose comparably challenging questions. (Each publisher settled before trial admitting no wrongdoing.)
Unlike Apple, the publisher defendants were charged with engaging in a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy – a well-recognized, frequently encountered, and widely condemned variety of collusive behavior. While the publishers’ motivations may have been unusual – some would argue laudable – there is much evidence that they did, in fact, collude to hike up the price of ebooks. Under Section 1 of the Sherman Act, which forbids conspiracies “in restraint of trade,” that’s hard to justify.
In contrast, though, Apple had a vertical relationship to all the other players in the alleged plot. As a result, its conduct poses far less familiar factual and legal questions. While there have been prior cases in which vertical players have participated in horizontal antitrust conspiracies, these have usually involved situations where a behemoth vertical player was the instigator and chief beneficiary of the whole scheme – the “ringmaster,” as courts have put it.
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Cue knew next to nothing about the book industry when he undertook his task in December, according to Snyder, the attorney for Apple. But one thing everyone knew by then – because it had been the subject of major articles in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times during the summer of 2009 – was that the publishing companies were, by this time, furious with Amazon about the rock-bottom $9.99 price at which it was selling the ebook versions of most of their new-releases and New York Times bestsellers.
Amazon then controlled about an 80% to 90% share of the ebook market, having helped pioneer that market with its November 2007 launch of the Kindle e-reader. Publishers sold Amazon the digital versions of their books using the same so-called “wholesale model” that they used for selling hardcover and paperback books to brick-and-mortar bookstores. Under that model, they’d sell the book to a retailer at about half the contemplated list price – say $12.50 for a hardback with a $25 price printed on the jacket –affording the retailer the discretion to determine how much of a discount they’d offer off the list price, if any.
Contemplating a retail price of about $20 for a digital book – about 20% off the standard $25 price for a new-release hardback – publishers sold ebooks to Amazon under this wholesale model for about $10. To their horror, however, Amazon resold the ebooks to the public for $9.99 — a slight actual loss or, as U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Lawrence E. Buterman put it in his opening, a “break-even” price. Buterman didn’t explain why Amazon did this in his opening, but Amazon evidently viewed the low-priced books as a way to kickstart a new market and stimulate sales of its new Kindle devices. Publishers feared, however, that such a low price would pull down the price of hardbacks and paperbacks, diminish authors’ royalties, torpedo the viability of brick-and-mortar bookstores, and possibly lead to the elimination of publishers altogether (disintermediation) as ebook distributors like Amazon would begin contracting directly with authors.
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What was less known at the time was that by the summer of 2009 the CEOs of the six major publishing companies had also begun meeting in private to discuss the future of their “industry” and what could be done about Amazon’s $9.99 pricepoint. There is evidence that they tried to keep these meetings secret, presumably out of concern that the discussions might be thought to violate the antitrust laws.
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Apple also contends that it never knew about the extent of the publishers’ horizontal collusion with one another, which seems both plausible to an extent, and implausible to an extent. Part of the problem here is that the concept of “collusion” is a funny one in the antitrust context. Whenever a traveler compares airline fares between two cities at a desired departure time, for example, he usually finds that all the key competitors charge exactly the same price – down to the penny. That’s not illegal price-fixing, so long as one Airline A set its price first, and Airlines B and C simply chose to match that fare later. If, on the other hand, all the competitors agreed beforehand that Airline A would announce its price first and that the others would then purport to “match” it after the fact, that’s illegal price-fixing. It’s a fine line for pragmatical, aggressive, business people to observe.
The government’s theory, in any case, is that once Apple did decide to get into the ebook business, it learned of the conspiracy and then exploited it. Apple gave the publishers a way to force Amazon to abandon the wholesale model, and to impose a new “agency” model on the entire ebook industry.
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The government theorizes that no publisher acting alone had the leverage to force Amazon to abandon the wholesale model, but that five major publishers acting in concert did have that leverage, and that Apple was the crucial “go-between,” “facilitator,” or “ringmaster” that could orchestrate this united effort.