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Trans-Atlantic Antitrust Watchdogs Investigate Pricing Of E-Books

Posted  December 19, 2011

The U.S. Department of Justice (the “DOJ”) and the European Commission have announced investigations of the e-book pricing arrangements of several international publishing companies.

The investigations focus on a 2010 change in the way e-books are sold.  Prior to Apple’s introduction of the iPad, e-books were sold though a wholesale method which allowed retailers to purchase books at discount prices and subsequently determine the price charged to consumers.  This model permitted Amazon to sell e-books at a discounted rate, helping to increase sales of its Kindle products.

It is alleged that after the release of the iPad as a competitor of the Kindle, Apple orchestrated an agreement among publishers to sell e-books through an agency model.  This agency model allowed publishers, not distributers, to set prices and impeded the ability of Amazon and other distributers to determine prices.

The European Commission has initiated official proceedings to determine whether five publishers, aided by Apple, “engaged in anticompetitive practices affecting the sale e-books in the European Economic Area.”  The publishers are Hachette Livre (Lagardere, Publishing, France), Harper Collins (News Corp., U.S.A.), Simon & Schuster (CBS Corp. U.S.A.), Penguin (Pearson Group, U.K.), and Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holzbrinck (owner of inter alia Macmillan, Germany).  The terms of the agency agreements are alleged to potentially violate Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which prohibits cartels and restrictive business practices.  If these companies are found to have participated in agreements or practices that had the object or effect of restricting competition, they could be subject to liability.

The DOJ has confirmed the existence of its investigation related to e-book pricing practices.  Little additional information was provided on the investigation which has been reported, but unconfirmed, since last year.

State attorneys general in Texas and Connecticut, as well as a class action suit in federal court in the Northern District of California, are also addressing this issue.