Is Apple price-fixing? Does it matter?

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

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.

A Kindle is tested in Amazon France. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.