Apple in court over price-fixing allegations

Accused of conspiring with publishers to raise prices.

Apple is in court today, accused of colluding with the "big five" American publishers to raise the price of eBooks. The US Department of Justice alleges that the six acted together to try and reverse Amazon's price cutting strategy, which was steadily eroding the amount an ebook was sold for.

Apple offered the publishers "agency pricing", a model where they would set the price and Apple take a cut. That's in contrast to Amazon's wholesale model: it pays a fixed cost to the publisher and then sets the price wherever it wants. Sometimes that meant it would raise it to get a share of the sale price well in excess of Apple's 30 per cent; more frequently, it meant it would aggressively cut it, selling the book at, or even below, wholesale price.

That drove the price of an ebook way down, leading publishers to fear that their profits were being permanently eroded. They existed in a world where, for the first few months of a books life, it was sold in expensive hardbacks, and they were trying to replicate that model online, charging up to £15 for an ebook. Instead, they saw prices plummeting to a level where they would be hard pressed to make a return at all.

So when Apple offered an agency model, the publishers saw a chance to start selling ebooks for more. And furthermore, they saw a chance to end Amazon's monopoly on the field, all while enable a competitor which might not be so agressive in downward pricing.

All of that is relatively uncontroversial. The issue is: did Apple and the publishers illegally conspire to raise prices for ebooks? Or was there no conspiracy, and it was just a natural offshoot of the agency model?

Steve Jobs, in his 2011 biography, suggests it may have been the former. He told Walter Isaacson, his biographer, that he went to the publishers and said "we'll go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30%, and yes, the customer pays a little more, but that's what you want anyway."

That's already perilously close to a conspiracy. If Apple were enticing some publishers by telling them that others had acquiesced, it could be an open and shut case. It's tricky now that he is no longer alive to explain his remarks.

There are actually three key legal issues for the court to assess. The first is the agency model itself: how does it apply to virtual goods? In a physical world, it involves the seller 'holding' goods owned by someone else, and taking a cut of their sales. Does that apply digitally, when there are no warehouses to run? Could the agency model itself be legally dubious? Without the need to maintain a standing stock, the distribution of risk is changed, and it certainly seems to represent a form of collusion.

The second involves the type of conspiracy which is alleged. Was it "hub and spoke" – Apple actively co-ordinating a united front on behalf of the publishers – or was it "conscious parallelism" – all of the publishers following each other's leads, actively trying to achieve a pricing strategy without any actual agreement. Both of those are illegal, and the Jobs quote suggests that if wrongdoing did occur, it was likely the former.

The third issue involves a specific clause in Apple's contracts, guaranteeing itself "most favoured nation" status. That lets the company guarantee that publishers will sell their books for no lower elsewhere than they do at Apple, strengthening the collusion aspects of the accusation. Such contracts aren't unusual – and are in fact commonplace in most negotiations such as these. For instance, Amazon makes heavy use of them in running its app store.

After all of that, it almost doesn't matter whether prices actually rose as a result. But analysis by the site Smashwords suggests they didn't. They can only look at a proxy of the data, because the real info is locked up by Apple and Amazon, but their preliminary research showed that average prices on the Apple iBookstore dropped 25 per cent in the first eighteen months. Whatever happened, the customer won in the end.

Photograph: Getty Images

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

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.