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Apple May Become Punchline Of DOJ Investigation

Posted  June 1, 2010

Maybe comedian Jon Stewart had a point about Apple.  Last month, he chastised the chic technology company, saying: “You guys were the rebels, man, the underdogs – people believed in you!  But now, are you becoming … The Man?”

It seems that the U.S. Department of Justice might agree.  According to the New York Times, the DOJ is investigating Apple for using its successful iTunes online music store to muscle Amazon out of the way.

According to the Times, Amazon annoyed Apple by offering promotions to music labels in exchange for an exclusive window to sell those labels’ new songs.  In response, Apple withdrew its own marketing support for the songs that Amazon highlighted.  According to Billboard magazine, which broke word of Apple’s practices in March, one music executive described Apple’s response as: “They are . . . diverting their energy from ‘let’s make this machine better’ to ‘let’s protect what we got.’”

That’s precisely the sort of attitude that attracts antitrust enforcers, especially when it comes from an industry leader.  And in the world of music sales, no other company is even close to Apple.  According to the Times, Apple has 69 percent of the market for online music sales, compared to 8 percent for Amazon, which is the number two in the market.  Indeed, Apple is also the largest music distributer over any platform, surpassing WalMart two years ago.   According to the Times, Apple now has over 25 percent of the entire music sales market.

As Apple has grown, it has triggered an increasing amount of antitrust scrutiny.  Earlier this month, reports emerged that DOJ or the Federal Trade Commission may investigate Apple for prohibiting writers of programs for its iPhone, iPod, and iPad line from using third-party software to create their applications.  It is also possible that DOJ is investigating Apple and other companies (including Google) for agreeing not to poach each others’ employees.  And last year, the FTC criticized Apple for having Google CEO Eric Schmidt serve on its board, which led soon after to Schmidt’s departure from Apple.

This is not the first time that the government has taken a hard look at online music prices.  In 2006, DOJ started a similar probe of record labels, for trying to raise the change the price of music sales on Apple’s iTunes.  Ultimately, Apple last year introduced more flexible pricing for iTunes music than it initially offered.

The timing for the antitrust story about Apple seems right on the money: on May 26, 2010, Apple became the largest technology company in the world, surpassing Microsoft.  And we all know what happened between DOJ and Microsoft.

Tagged in: Antitrust Enforcement, Price Fixing,