Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2013 Issue

Apple Convicted for Role in E-Books Price Fixing Scheme

Timetoclosethebook

The closing slide from Apple's unsuccessful presentation in court.

The last man standing has fallen in the government's lawsuit over price fixing of electronic books. Unlike its partners in “crime,” Apple did not go down without a fight. Indeed, Apple says it will try to rise off the mat to go another round. For the moment anyway, the bell has rung and the U.S. Department of Justice has swept through each round and the judge has awarded it a lopsided decision.

The government's suit alleged that Apple conspired with five book publishers to thwart competition, resulting in higher prices of e-books for the book-buying public. Here are the basics of what happened. A few years ago, when e-books were new, Amazon began to offer them for sale. Amazon likes to dominate a market, and is willing to forgo current profits to become the market leader. So, Amazon bought the publishers' e-books, but sold them at cutthroat prices. Their prices left little room for profit. Some were sold at a loss. It didn't matter to Amazon. They were not out to make a dollar today. They were out to become the runaway leader in selling electronic books, the one place customers would turn when they wanted one. Profits could come later.

You might think the publishers would be laughing all the way to the bank. Cheap prices encourage more sales, but those discounts came at Amazon's expense. The publishers were getting their full price. Nevertheless, if you thought that, you were wrong. The publishers were not pleased at all. They wanted e-books to reach new customers, not the old print book buyers. The publishers make more money on a printed book than an e-book. If Amazon's super low prices ended up stealing away print book buyers, publishers feared their margins per book would fall. They wanted e-books to be an alternative method for people to buy books, not a cheaper one. They wanted Amazon to raise prices. Amazon, on the other hand, wanted to keep their prices low to discourage competition on the retail side.

When one of the publishers tried to force Amazon to sell at higher prices. Amazon threatened to stop buying their books entirely. The publisher relented. Amazon had become too powerful to take on alone.

Into this milieu stepped Apple, the giant computer, smart phone, i-this and i-that maker. Apple wanted to offer e-books for sale, but unlike Amazon, Apple does not want to wait to make profits. It wants to make them now. There was no way Apple could be competitive with Amazon on price and make money. The firm relayed its distress to the publishers. A different pricing model, however, would cure this problem. If the publishers switched to so-called agency pricing, where the publisher dictates the retail price rather than the retailer, Apple would be able to compete on price. If Apple could compete on price, it meant prices would go up, and customers would be less likely to buy cheaper e-books instead of higher priced printed books. This idea looked good to both the publishers and Apple.

Exactly what happened next was the subject of dispute. Apple held negotiations with the various publishers. The publishers switched to agency pricing. When the first publisher switched, Amazon said it would stop buying their books. When they all did, Amazon could no longer afford to pull the plug. They would have lost access to too many titles, meaning e-book buyers would turn to other retailers to buy their books. That was exactly what Amazon wanted to avoid. It had no choice but to give in and agree to sell e-books at the higher “agency” prices.

Now, there is nothing illegal about publishers employing an agency model, even if it does eliminate price competition among retailers. That is not considered price fixing. However, when several publishers get together and all agree to adopt agency pricing, that is considered illegal collusion and price fixing. That is what the Department of Justice alleged. And the instigator, or “ringmaster” to use their term, they said was none other than Apple.

The Department of Justice claimed that Apple was managing a conspiracy whereby each of the publishers would switch to agency pricing. And so they all did, at the same time, change to agency pricing. Apple was able to sell their books, and Amazon was forced to raise the price of books they sold, often from $9.99 to $12.99 or $14.99.

Apple responded that all they did was negotiate with individual publishers for terms that they felt would allow them to sell their books. They were in no way encouraging a concerted action on the publishers' part, said Apple. Judge Denise Cote looked at the evidence, including comments attributed to late Apple CEO Steve Jobs in his biography, and concluded otherwise.

In her decision, Judge Cote wrote that the publishers were already seeking a way to collectively raise prices, as they knew Amazon could effectively retaliate against the first who tried. When approached by Apple, all parties immediately recognized a common interest in having higher prices. “Apple seized the moment and brilliantly played its hand,” she wrote. “With a full appreciation of each other’s interests, Apple and the Publisher Defendants agreed to work together to eliminate retail price competition in the e-book market and raise the price of e-books above $9.99.” Guilty as charged.

The publishers long ago threw in the towel and agreed to settle with the Department of Justice. They were assessed hefty fines, but the damage could have been much worse if they fought and lost. One reluctantly settling publisher noted the potential damages in a loss would put them out of business, too great a risk to continue the fight. By continuing to fight, Apple risks a large financial judgment, but with $150 billion in the bank, even the worst outcome will not materially harm their business. As a result, Apple immediately announced that it would fight on. They will take the case to the Court of Appeals, and if this is unsuccessful, they will have one more option – take it all the way to the Supreme Court. Most legal commentators do not believe the odds are in Apple's favor, but some believe they have a shot. The problem for Apple is cases are generally overturned because a higher court believes the lower court did not correctly apply the law. In this case, the dispute is not so much over the law as it is over the facts – did or did not Apple act as a “ringmaster” who led the five publishers to all take some action? Hoping a higher court will reach a different factual conclusion from the same evidence is a tougher challenge, but Apple is a company with the resources to take on even the toughest challenge.

Unrelated Addendum for those who read this far: Admittedly, this has nothing to do with books, but if you think Apple has legal problems with e-books, that is nothing compared to a lawsuit initiated by a buyer of an Apple computer from Tennessee. This customer has demanded that Apple sell its computers in “safe mode,” preset to block pornographic sites, along with paying him something in excess of $75,000. After a thorough description of the horrors pornography has inflicted on society, he tells his own sad tale. One day when he was trying to find Facebook, he accidentally hit two wrong keys. Here is what he typed, leaving the erroneous keys blank: f_c_book. We will leave it to your imagination what letters he accidentally typed besides the “a” and “e” of “face” in those two blanks. I can say that I checked out my keyboard, and discovered “a” is nowhere near “u,” and “e” is nowhere near “k.”

After that, it was all downhill. The complaint states, “The Plaintiff began to prefer the cyber beauties over his wife, which caused his marriage to fail. His wife abducted his son and disappeared, which was a subsequent consequence of Apple's decision to sell its computers not in 'safe mode.'” The complaint continues that the plaintiff, a member of the always chaste music profession, had previously “never seen pornographic images.”

The Tennessean goes on to explain, “When the Plaintiff bought his Apple Mac Book, no one at apple's store warned him that looking at pornographic images and videos could cause addictions to include arousal addiction or that the device could be the gateway to accessing content that could cause a rewiring of his brain, which lead to the demise of his family, unemployment, and unwanted changes in life style.” On this point I am in his corner. I have been to Apple stores and the salesmen absolutely do not make this warning. I must also agree with his claim that Apple knows full well “that the internet is loaded with porn.”

He later claims that the pictures “caused a release of dopamines and endorphins” which addicted him. On this one I will pass – not all that up on the science stuff. Neither would I pose as a legal expert. Nevertheless, I think this will be a tough case for the plaintiff to win. Sometimes you just have to take responsibility for your own behavior. You lose some but you win some, and on this case, I forecast an Apple victory in court.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Franklin H. Brown, <i>State Sovereignty, National Union,</i> Chicago, 1860. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Thomas Paine, <i>The American Crisis,</i> Fishkill, NY, December 1776. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b><br>The Aitken Bible, Philadelphia, 1781. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francisco Loubayssin de Lamarca, probable first edition of the first novel set in the Spanish New World, Paris, 1617. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Juan de la Anunciación, <i>Sermonario en lengua mexicana,</i> first edition, first book of sermons in Nahuatl, Mexico, 1577. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Maturino Gilberti, <i>Thesoro spiritual en lengua de Mechuacá,</i> first edition, Mexico, 1558. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Commission of William O. Stoddard as secretary to the president, signed by Lincoln, Washington, 1861. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> <i>Clay and Frelinghuysen,</i> flag banner, circa 1844. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Daguerreotype of a man believed to be Frederick Granger Williams Smith, son of Joseph Smith, circa late 1850s. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> John C. Wolfe, <i>Portrait of Abraham Lincoln,</i> oil on board in period wooden frame, circa 1860s. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francis W. Winton, manuscript on pow-wows with indigenous Canadians, 1881. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Family letters from two young daguerreotype artists, 1826-79. $10,000 to $15,000.
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    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Published Half Plate Ambrotype of a North Carolina Confederate Officer. $2,000 to $4,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Two 19th Century Books Pertaining to Canada's Red River Settlement. $400 to $800
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Two Books With Fore-Edge Paintings of British Architectual Landmarks. $400 to $600
    <b>Leland Little: Important Fall Auction. September 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987), "Torte a la Dobosch" from <i>Wild Raspberries</i>. $1,000 to $3,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Keith Haring (American, 1958-1990), <i>Pop Shop II,</i> One Plate screenprint in colors, on wove paper, 1998. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Thomas Rowlandson (British, 1756-1827), Twenty-Two Prints from the <i>Tours of Dr. Syntax</i>. $500 to $1,000
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    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
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    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
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    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. $70,000 to $100,000
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    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. $30,000 to $50,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> After Fra Egnazio Danti. <i>L'Ultime Parti not:e nel Indie Occid:ntli" [The last known parts of the Western Indies].</i> Painted Map of California, Western Mexico, and Japan. $70,000 to $100,000
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    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Ptolemaeus, Claudius. <i>Geographie opus nouissima...</i> 1513. The most important edition of Ptolemy, containing the Admiral's Map. $250,000 to $350,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> De Arellano, Don Alonso. Manuscript, his <i>"Relación mui singular y circunstanciada... Capitán del Patax San Lucas,"</i> manuscript copy from the Sir Thomas Phillips collection. $50,000 to $80,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Purchas, Samuel. <i>Purchas his Pilgrimes.</i> First edition. With John Simth's engraved map of Virginia. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. $2,000 to $3,000

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