Wouldn’t you want to see who wins a cage match between Godzilla and King Kong? We certainly would. Until recently, that fight was under way. Major book publishers (“publishers”) and Apple, Inc. (“Apple”) (collectively “Godzilla”) were chipping way at the 90% market e-book share held by Amazon (“King Kong”). And yet on April 11, 2012, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) sued Godzilla alleging that it violated the antitrust laws. In light of the potentially tenuous merit of the lawsuit, it seems only fair that that the DOJ would investigate potential predatory pricing of e-books by King Kong, too.
The DOJ’s lawsuit is potentially tenuous because the publishers and Apple are not garden variety horizontal competitors fixing prices, as was the case when Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the famous auction houses, agreed to fix their commissions. Instead, the contracts between the publishers and Apple (“agency agreements”) are more akin to a vertical distribution agreement between a manufacturer and a retailer. The DOJ’s allegations, even if true,support this view.
Apple separately transacted with several book publishers to distribute their titles. In exchange, Apple received a 30% commission off the price of the book, which was negotiated between the publishers and Apple. This agency model replaced the wholesale model, in which publishers would sell to Apple at half of the retail price, and then let Apple sell at whatever price it wished. As any distributor with power would do, Apple obtained assurances in the agency agreements that the publishers would not do an end run around Apple and distribute via others, including Amazon, for less.
Even though the agency agreements are vertical, the DOJ is treating the them as though they were horizontal. The characterization makes a legal difference. On the one hand, courts review agreements (and conspiracies) among horizontal competitors to fix prices under the per se illegal standard. Once the agreement is proved, it is deemed illegal, regardless of its potential pro-competitive benefits or the market power of the competitors. On the other hand, courts review vertical resale price maintenance agreements among a manufacturer and a retailer, for example, under the rule of reason. Under this test, the court weighs the pro-competitive benefits of the agreement with its anti-competitive effects. Because the agency agreements are more akin to resale price maintenance contracts, they should likely be judged under the rule of reason, which makes the DOJ’s case tougher.
But regardless of which way the court ends up characterizing the relationship between the publishers and Apple, it seems at the very least that the DOJ should have investigated King Kong — that is, Amazon — for potential predatory pricing, too. Pricing below cost is unlawful if “it is part of a strategy to eliminate competitors, and when that strategy has a dangerous probability of creating a monopoly for the discounting firm so that it can raise prices far into the future and recoup its losses.” This sounds very similar to what King Kong has been doing by selling major titles below cost through its Kindle device, which currently occupies roughly 90% of the distribution market for e-books. It seems that publishers felt the only way to fight back was to agree to Apple’s agency agreements, which it demands of all content providers, so that the publishers could then withhold titles from Amazon unless it agreed to the same pricing structure they gave to Apple.
In the end, it might have been wrong for Godzilla to blow fire into King Kong’s face. But then it might have been wrong for King Kong to throw acid into Godzilla’s eyes. Either both sides should be scrutinized for their potential wrongs, or the referee — the DOJ — should stay out of the match and let the market decide who to favor.