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sunset-on-lake-purple-light-1406480-m.jpgUnfair competition is back in the news. The U.S. Justice Department sued American Express a few years ago for unfair competition in the credit card business. Since such things take time, the trial just began on Monday July 7, 2014. The issues, the accusations, and the justifications seem fairly familiar, especially when you recall the last big antitrust trial and the unintended consequences that followed. Whether the same thing will happen this time, though, is something only time will tell.

The last time, the Justice Department sued Apple, to prevent what it said was anti-competitive practices in the e-book business. As we previously wrote, these included the agency model, in which the publishers set the price of the e-book, and the seller, in this case Apple, takes a set percentage of that price; and most-favored nation clauses, in which the seller, is allowed to match its lowest competitor’s price. Well, Apple lost, the Justice Department won, and, some would say, so did Amazon. Apple was trying to break into the e-book market and its job was made harder; Amazon was the dominant seller in the e-book business and some would say its job was made easier because it could use its market share to leverage ever better deals for itself and, it would say, for its customers, too.

This time, the Justice Department reportedly takes issue with American Express’ rules that prohibit merchants that accept its cards from offering discounts or otherwise steering customers to use cards that are less expensive for the merchants to process. Credit card companies, it seems, make money by charging merchants a set percentage of the sales price for every sale made on one of their credit cards. These swipe fees vary and, reportedly, American Express cards have some of the higher ones. Merchants would be able to keep more of the purchase price if a customer used a credit card that had a lower swipe fee and they could give credit card customers a discount, some portion of the money saved, as an incentive. American Express evidently does not want that to happen because its customers presumably would have to pay more, i.e. not receive a discount or incentive, to use an American Express Card.

The government’s position was summed up nicely in an article in the Wall Street Journal by Robin Sidel that was last updated on July 3, 2014 9:01 a.m. ET:
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stick-insect-mother-and-baby-1425436-m.jpgIt’s been a while, but claims of unfair competition involving e-books are back in the news. About a year ago the Justice Department won its antitrust case against Apple for horizontal price fixing of e-books. Now Apple’s main competitor, Amazon, is having a dispute with one of the same publishers involved in the Apple case, Hachette. Amazon reportedly is pressuring Hachette to let it keep a bigger share of the sales price of e-books, and driving up the price in the process. Whether there is any comparison, or connection, between what Apple did and what Amazon is doing, is for you to decide.

What Apple Did

Let’s look at what the court determined Apple did wrong. The Apple case was decided, after a bench trial, by U.S. District Judge Denise Cote. In her July 10, 2013 decision, she held, beginning at p. 9:

“The Plaintiffs have shown that the Publisher Defendants conspired with each other to eliminate retail price competition in order to raise e-book prices, and that Apple played a central role in facilitating and executing that conspiracy. Without Apple’s orchestration of this conspiracy, it would not have succeeded as it did in the Spring of 2010.”

The Justice Department’s view of what Apple did was summed up nicely in an article by Bob Van Voris about the Apple trial, which appeared in Bloomberg on Jun 21, 2013 at 12:01 AM ET:

“Mark Ryan, a lawyer for the Justice Department, followed Snyder [Apple’s attorney] yesterday, arguing that Apple headed up ‘an old-fashioned, straightforward price-fixing agreement.’ “

The way Apple conspired to end retail price competition and raise the price of e-books was simple, according to the court. Before Apple, the publishers sold e-books to retailers such as Amazon at a wholesale price and the retailers sold the e-books to the public at whatever price they saw fit. The publishers wanted to raise the price of e-books and Apple gave them a way. Apple agreed to let the publishers set the prices of e-books, which were as much as 50% higher than what Amazon was charging at the time. In return, the publishers agreed to pay Apple a fixed percentage of the sales price. This is the agency model. In return, the publishers gave Apple a Most Favored Nation clause, which is a way of saying they agreed to let Apple match its competitors’ lowest price for the same e-book. According to the court, the publishers also agreed to a harsh financial penalty unless Amazon and other competitors agreed to let the publishers set the retail prices. In effect, the publishers set the price, Apple took a share, and everyone had an incentive to go along.

What Amazon Is Doing
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