Judges question Apple ebook verdict and Amazon’s role

In a new twist in the long running antitrust case against Apple, an appeals court on Monday cast doubt on the Justice Department’s theory that the company brokered an illegal conspiracy among book publishers, and asked instead why the government’s focus has not been on Amazon.

The 90-minute hearing, which took place at the Second Circuit Court in Manhattan, represented a major shift in momentum in a case that has until now gone completely against Apple. On Monday, the three appeals court judges suggested that District Judge Denise Cote might have been too quick to conclude that Apple’s pricing arrangements with five publishers violated antitrust laws.

“Would it not matter that all those people got together to defeat a monopolist? It’s like the mice that got together to put a bell on a cat,” U.S. Circuit Judge Dennis Jacobs told the Justice Department’s lawyer, Malcolm Stewart.

The cat in question here is [company]Amazon[/company], which controlled over 90 percent of the ebook market in early 2010 when Apple and the publishers introduced “agency pricing,” which lets publishers set an ebook’s retail price and pay the publisher a commission. Amazon had previously used the wholesale model for all ebooks.

On Monday, Apple’s lawyer Theodore Boutros urged the appeals court to regard the pricing tactic as a legitimate business arrangement used to “come into a market dominated by a monopolist.”

The judges appeared to give weight to this suggestion, and to accept Boutros’ contention that a brief price spike, which damned Apple and the publishers before Judge Cote, should not result in an automatic finding of illegal price-fixing. Instead, Boutros said the price spike was limited only to the five publishers, and that the overall effect of Apple’s entry to the ebook market dramatically benefited consumers since many more players were willing to enter the market.

The appeals court judges also expressed skepticism over Stewart’s repeated attempts to liken the agency pricing arrangements to a criminal drug conspiracy in which [company]Apple[/company] was the driver.

“When you’re dealing with the illegal drug industry, you’re looking at one of the few areas where the law doesn’t look favorably on new entrants,” said Circuit Judge Debra Livingston.

$450 million settlement at risk

If the appeals court decides to disturb Judge Cote’s verdict, their ruling would have an immediate ripple effect on a related legal proceeding, involving class action lawyers and state governments, in which Apple has agreed to pay out $400 million to consumers and another $50 million in legal fees.

But in an unusual arrangement, the $450 payout is contingent on the Second Circuit upholding the verdict. If the appeals court judges remand the verdict, the payout could drop to a total of $70 million and, if they reverse it entirely, the payout will be nothing.

At the hearing, Boutros suggested that the appeals should overturn Court’s ruling as a matter of law, or at least remand it to a different judge.

The major legal issue at stake turns turns on competing antitrust doctrines known as “per se” versus “rule of reason” — which specify how courts should assess situations in which companies are found to have colluded on a given business issue.

The appeals court, however, may be hard-pressed to reverse Judge Cote, who found in a 160-page decision that Apple was liable under either standard.

In the event the appeals court does remand or reverse, its finding is likely to turn on whether Apple and the publishers’ behavior was justified in the context of what Judge Jacobs called a “new entrant breaking the hold of a monopolist” using “arguably predatory” tactics.

For the publishers, the outcome will not effect their liability since they have already agreed to pay out millions as a result of voluntary settlements.

A five-year cooling off period

A portion of Monday’s arguments were taken up by lawyers from Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, which are two of the five publishers that were caught up in the antitrust investigations (the others are Hachette, HarperCollins and Penguin, which has since merged with Random House).

Macmillan and Simon & Schuster were there to object to a part of Judge Cote’s order in which Apple must engage in a five-year “cooling off period” with the publishers, and engage in only arms-length negotiations. For practical purposes, this means that the publishers will not be able to limit Apple’s ability to engage in discounting, which could in turn complicate their negotiations with other retailers.

The publishers claim this five-year provision is unfair since they are this month coming to the end of their own two-year settlements with the government. They claim that the Justice Department is, in essence, reneging on its earlier agreement with them since the five-year arrangement with Apple will have knock-on effects in their negotiations with other ebook retailers.

The publishers asked the judges to excise a part of Judge Cote’s order that applies the five-year cooling-off period and, if necessary, to make a special preliminary decision on this matter so their pricing strategies are not compromised.

Finally, the appeals court judges also mulled what to do with the special monitor that Justice Cote appointed to oversee Apple’s compliance. The appointment has drawn criticism because the monitor selected by Cote was a friend of the judge who lacked antitrust experience and hired a special advisor at extra cost.

The appeals court said it will reserve its decision, meaning a ruling is likely to come sometime in 2015.