Apple was last week found guilty in the US for its role in the fixing of e-book prices. A subsequent hearing will now be held to determine the damages that Apple will be forced to pay. However, Apple vehemently denies the allegations and looks set to appeal the decision.
To understand what the US Department of Justice (the European Commission has also brought a case) is objecting to, we need to look back to how pricing in this rapidly growing market has evolved over time.
Until the end of 2009 e-books were sold under a wholesale pricing model. Here, publishers charge retailers a wholesale price per book and retailers are then free to charge final consumers whatever price they choose. This all changed in the US (there were also similar developments in Europe) during an eventful period of a few days in January 2010 when Apple unveiled its iPad for April release.
The publisher Macmillian proposed that Amazon switch to an agency pricing model under which the publisher sets the retail price. This is typically referred to by economists as Resale Price Maintenance (RPM). Interestingly, RPM has a long history in the book industry. In the UK for example, throughout most of the last century publishers set prices under the Net Book Agreement, until this broke down in the mid 1990s. In addition, in some countries, for example Germany, books continue to be sold under RPM.
Macmillan also threatened Amazon that if it preferred to keep wholesale pricing it would delay the supply of e-book releases to them. Amazon initially responded by refusing to stock Macmillan titles. However, soon after Amazon ceded to Macmillan’s proposal. Despite this, Amazon made clear its dissatisfaction to its customers:
We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles. We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books.
It turned out that 5 of the 6 major publishers (including Macmillan) had already agreed the same agency terms to sell e-books for Apple devices. Like Macmillan, the other publishers all then also imposed agency pricing on Amazon. Furthermore, crucial to the contracts agreed with Apple was a so called ‘most-favoured customer’ clause which guaranteed that e-books would not be sold elsewhere at prices below those charged to Apple customers. Effectively, therefore, this clause made it necessary for the publishers to impose agency terms on Amazon. The Department of Justice objected to this and believed consumers would be harmed due to higher prices. All of the publishers involved eventually decided to settle the case, leaving Apple alone to fight the case in court.
In the decision Judge Cote concluded that:
the publisher defendants conspired with each other to eliminate retail price competition in order to raise e-book prices, and that Apple played a central role in facilitating and executing that conspiracy. Without Apple’s orchestration of this conspiracy, it would not have succeeded as it did in the Spring of 2010.
It is interesting to consider the reasons why the publishers would be keen to take control of the prices Amazon charges for e-books. Evidence suggests that Amazon was frequently retailing e-books at substantial discounts and even below wholesale costs. One explanation for this is that Amazon was keen to increase demand for Kindle devices. The publishers, on the other hand, might well be concerned about the implications of Amazon dominating the e-book market. Potentially, this would give Amazon significant bargaining power over them.
Of course, such dominance might also have knock-on effects on consumer prices in the long-run. Whether the publishers will be permitted to use agency pricing to mitigate such concerns in the future remains unclear and depends on whether the competition authorities object to agency pricing per se or just the coordinated way in which it was achieved.
As the articles below demonstrate, opinion is strongly divided for and against the judgement against Apple.
EU raids ebook publishers in price fixing investigation The Guardian, Benedicte Page and Leigh Phillips (4/3/11)
Apple Faces Damages Trial Over E-Book Antitrust Violation Bloomberg Businessweek, Bob Van Voris, Adam Satariano and David McLaughlin (10/7/13)
Apple played ‘central role’ in ebook price-fixing conspiracy, says federal judge The Guardian, Amanda Holpuch (11/7/13)
US: Apple found guilty, but what happens next? Competition Policy International (11/7/13)
Why It’s Insane That No One Cares About Apple’s Price-Fixing Conspiracy (AAPL) Seattle pi, Jim Edwards (13/7/13)
Apple Learns The Hazards Of Innovation With E-Book Antitrust Ruling Forbes, Daniel Fisher (10/7/13)
- What are the important features of the e-book market?
- What are the key differences between the traditional and e-book markets?
- To what extent do Amazon and Apple have different incentives in the e-book market?
- Do you think Resale Price Maintenance is more likely to harm competition in the market for traditional or e-books?
- What do you think might be the short and long-run implications of this decision?