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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder