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Is Apple price-fixing? Does it matter?

The United States DoJ is investigating Apple and five major publishers for collusion.

A Kindle is tested in Amazon France. Credit: Getty

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the United States Department of Justice was investigating Apple and the "big five" publishers (HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster) for collusion to fix ebook prices.

At stake is the agency pricing model, where publishers have the power to set their own prices on ebook retailers; this is in contrast to the pricing model dominant in the industry before Apple's entrance, where retailers (at the time largely synonymous with Amazon, which held 80-90 per cent of the ebook market) were free to set their own prices while guaranteeing a certain cut to the publishers.

The concern of the Department of Justice seems to be that all the major publishers used the entry of Apple into the market to force Amazon to adopt the agency model, and then, it is alleged, all made the most of their newfound freedom over pricing to raise the prices of their ebooks.

Evidence on the issue is scarce, and some of the publishers have reportedly moved to settle already; but today, some new figures came to light which may strengthen their case.

The publisher Smashwords, which acts as an umbrella body for self-published authors looking to get their books on to digital storefronts, has released the data it submitted to the DoJ in the investigation. It shows that, all else being equal, the competition afforded by agency pricing seems to lower prices across the board:

In plain English, the average prices have dropped 25% from $4.55 in October 2010 to $3.41 today...

The $3.41 is a really interesting number, for a couple reasons:

1) It shows that authors and publishers, left to their own free will, are pricing their books lower in this highly competitive market. Sure, they could all try to fleece customers by pricing their books at $29.99, but customers won't let them.

2) $3.41 is remarkably close to the average price paid for Smashwords books purchased at Barnes & Noble during the last 30 days. The B&N number: $3.16. I looked at every Smashwords book sold at Barnes & Noble between February 28 and March 27, then calculated the average price. This means Smashwords authors are pricing their books close to what customers want to pay. The median price (represents the midpoint, where an equal number of books sold at lower prices and and equal number sold at higher prices) was $2.99.

But proving that agency pricing doesn't lead to artificially inflated price tags may not be enough to save the publishers and Apple from a lawsuit. Tim Carmody reports for Wired that the issues for the DoJ are "bigger than rising e-book prices or even collusion between publishers":

"Plenty of business practices raise prices that aren’t antitrust violations," says Donald Knebel, an IP and antitrust attorney affiliated with the Center for Intellectual Property Research. "Agency pricing is perfectly legal. But something isn’t an agency relationship just because you call it that."

Knebel says there are three major points of law at stake in both the class-action suit and the Justice Department investigation against Apple and the five publishers:

  1. Whether and how the agency model applies to virtual goods;
  2. Whether Apple and publishers engaged in a “hub-and-spoke” conspiracy or simply “conscious parallelism”;
  3. The status of the “most-favored nation” clause, common to many legal contracts today, which Apple used to ensure that books could not be sold elsewhere at a lower price than in the iBooks store.

The case is nowhere close to conclusion, but whatever the outcome, it will reverberate throughout the industry. In tech, it remains the case that where America goes, the rest of the world follows.