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.

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A global marketplace: the internet represents exporting’s biggest opportunity

The advent of the internet age has made the whole world a single marketplace. Selling goods online through digital means offers British businesses huge opportunities for international growth. The UK was one of the earliest adopters of online retail platforms, and UK online sales revenues are growing at around 20 per cent each year, not just driving wider economic growth, but promoting the British brand to an enthusiastic audience.

Global e-commerce turnover grew at a similar rate in 2014-15 to over $2.2trln. The Asia-Pacific region, for example, is embracing e-marketplaces with 28 per cent growth in 2015 to over $1trln of sales. This demonstrates the massive opportunities for UK exporters to sell their goods more easily to the world’s largest consumer markets. My department, the Department for International Trade, is committed to being a leader in promoting these opportunities. We are supporting UK businesses in identifying these markets, and are providing access to services and support to exploit this dramatic growth in digital commerce.

With the UK leading innovation, it is one of the responsibilities of government to demonstrate just what can be done. My department is investing more in digital services to reach and support many more businesses, and last November we launched our new digital trade hub: www.great.gov.uk. Working with partners such as Lloyds Banking Group, the new site will make it easier for UK businesses to access overseas business opportunities and to take those first steps to exporting.

The ‘Selling Online Overseas Tool’ within the hub was launched in collaboration with 37 e-marketplaces including Amazon and Rakuten, who collectively represent over 2bn online consumers across the globe. The first government service of its kind, the tool allows UK exporters to apply to some of the world’s leading overseas e-marketplaces in order to sell their products to customers they otherwise would not have reached. Companies can also access thousands of pounds’ worth of discounts, including waived commission and special marketing packages, created exclusively for Department for International Trade clients and the e-exporting programme team plans to deliver additional online promotions with some of the world’s leading e-marketplaces across priority markets.

We are also working with over 50 private sector partners to promote our Exporting is GREAT campaign, and to support the development and launch of our digital trade platform. The government’s Exporting is GREAT campaign is targeting potential partners across the world as our export trade hub launches in key international markets to open direct export opportunities for UK businesses. Overseas buyers will now be able to access our new ‘Find a Supplier’ service on the website which will match them with exporters across the UK who have created profiles and will be able to meet their needs.

With Lloyds in particular we are pleased that our partnership last year helped over 6,000 UK businesses to start trading overseas, and are proud of our association with the International Trade Portal. Digital marketplaces have revolutionised retail in the UK, and are now connecting consumers across the world. UK businesses need to seize this opportunity to offer their products to potentially billions of buyers and we, along with partners like Lloyds, will do all we can to help them do just that.

Taken from the New Statesman roundtable supplement Going Digital, Going Global: How digital skills can help any business trade internationally

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