[Originally posted at Gayton Law Blog, August 26, 2014]

Several articles in the business press during recent months have reported on a dispute between book publisher, Hachette, and book distributor, Amazon.  The dispute centers on the pricing of e-books.  Amazon wants a larger slice of the profits on e-book sales, and to obtain that larger slice, it wants Hachette to lower its wholesale prices.  Hachette, which publishes James Patterson among other best-selling authors, is resisting.  In turn, Amazon has removed Hachette titles from its pre-order list.  That list is important to publishers because pre-order sales go into the initial sales figures for a new title, better enabling the title to achieve best seller status and the marketing boost that this status brings about.

In the reporting on this dispute, Amazon’s tactics have been described, among other pejoratives, as “bullying” and “strong-arming.”  Hachette after all is a relatively small publisher, and Amazon is the world’s largest book seller.  The European press has gone even further.  The Financial Times, for example, asks whether Amazon might be “using its dominance in one market – ereaders – to boost its dominance in another – ebooks.”

Before jumping on the band wagon condemning Amazon, however, some understanding of relevant facts and relevant law is in order.  To begin with, we might ask why Hachette and Amazon are negotiating an agreement at this time?  The answer is because Hachette, along with Apple and four other publishers (Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin, and HarperCollins) were accused by the Justice Department in 2012 of conspiring with each other to raise e-book prices in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, which outlaws anticompetitive agreements.  According to Justice Department documents, the alleged unlawful conspiracy consisted of creating a collective plan to force Amazon to increase its $9.99 price point for trade e-books.

As set out in Justice Department documents, Apple, in conjunction with its launch of the I-Pad in January 2010, desired simultaneously to enter the e-book retailing business, but was concerned about its ability to compete with Amazon on price.  In a plan largely designed by Apple but implemented by the five publishers, pressure was put on Amazon to agree to new distribution agreements by which the publishers would set the retail prices of trade e-books instead of Amazon.  Rather than buy the books at wholesale from the publishers, Amazon would act as a selling agent and simply receive a fixed commission on each sale.  Later, a sixth publisher, Random House, adopted this business model as well for many of its e-books, resulting in nearly 50% of all trade e-books distributed and sold under this agency system.  The almost immediate consequence was a significant increase in the price of trade e-books.

Hachette and each of the other four publishers subsequently reached a settlement with the Justice Department.  Apple went to trial and lost in an opinion filed in July 2013 finding Apple’s conduct illegal.  Although not admitting guilt, the settling defendants, including Hachette, agreed to abandon any control of retail pricing of e-books with any retailer, and to arrive independently at new distribution agreements with Amazon.  This then is the basis for the current negotiations between Hachette and Amazon. As is apparent, Hachette put itself into this position by dint of its prior concerted actions with its competitors.

If anything, to date Amazon’s presence in the retail e-book market, by resisting efforts on the part of publishers to raise prices, has been a boon to consumers. Implicit in the Justice Department’s litigation is a recognition of this fact. Further, as Apple, Google, and others, such as the publishers themselves, enter and expand into retail e-book sales, price competition will only increase.  The key is the ability to compete on price and not have price uniformly set by upstream anticompetitive agreements.

As for Amazon’s alleged dominance in e-book readers (the Kindle) and the alleged potential to leverage that dominance anticompetitively into e-book sales, few, if any, real world facts suggest that this presents a serious antitrust concern at this time, at least under U.S. law.  Section 2 of the Sherman Act goes after conduct that is both something other than “competition on the merits” and results in actual monopolization or a dangerous probability of that result. Simply having a large market share — even a very large one — is not a violation of Section 2.  Section 2 is concerned only with obtaining or maintaining a monopoly by anticompetitive means, i.e., a means that harms consumer welfare.

Although the Kindle device links to Amazon’s Kindle Store, it is possible to download many e-books obtained elsewhere. Some may first have to be converted to the Kindle format (Mobi), however. Calibre is a free download conversion program that will do this in a few minutes or less. Thus, there generally are no significant obstacles to using the Kindle to read e-books obtained elsewhere. Furthermore, tablets such as the I-Pad are e-readers as well. In fact, some might argue that they are superior to the Kindle insofar as they can display content in color such as illustrations or exhibits in art books. Hence, if anything, we are likely to see considerable erosion of Amazon’s share of e-reader sales in the future, eliminating any potential to use those sales as leverage in the retail e-book market.

Notwithstanding the above, given the global marketplace, it is useful to note that there are differences between U.S. antitrust law and competition law in other jurisdictions.  Firms operating globally must be cognizant of these differences.  As noted, the Sherman Act does not outlaw conduct by dominant firms unless that conduct is detrimental to competition itself, i.e., it results in harm to consumer welfare. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has often stated that it is axiomatic that the U.S. antitrust laws are intended for the “protection of competition, not competitors.” By contrast, competition law within the European Union is more suspect of firms with dominant market shares, and may be more protective of competitors and suppliers. Conduct and practices that may not be unlawful under U.S. law may be unlawful under EU law.  Not only Amazon, but any global enterprise, should take care to be informed about and in compliance with all relevant law.

Theodore A. Gebhard advises attorneys on the effective use and rebuttal of economic and econometric evidence in advocacy proceedings.  He is a former Justice Department antitrust economist, Federal Trade Commission attorney, private practitioner, and economics professor.  Mr. Gebhard holds an economics Ph.D. as well as a J.D.  Nothing in this article is purported to be legal advice.  Facts or circumstances described in the article may have changed by the time of posting. You can contact the author via email at theodore.gebhard@aol.com.

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