A Wolf in Agency Clothing Is Still Vertical Price Fixing

First off, I’m not a lawyer but with all the talk about monopolies, abuse of market power and antitrust violations going on in publishing these past few years, I thought I’d dig a little into the laws themselves and see if I can make sense of what’s what. Again, not a lawyer. This is an enormously complicated and often contradictory issue that’s bounced back and forth between various stages of legality and illegality, the enforcement of such dictated by a convoluted mess of legislation and court precedent. So here goes, down the rabbit hole as I best understand it.

Agency Pricing is basically a Resale Price Maintenance agreement where, in this case, the producers (publishers) want to take control of the pricing of their products at retail (Amazon, etc). It’s vertical price fixing because it occurs between layers of the chain, suppliers controlling prices at the retail level. It was banned in a Supreme Court decision in 1911, as the ruling stated, because these types of agreements are “economically indistinguishable from horizontal price fixing by a cartel.” Horizontal price fixing being sellers fixing prices amongst themselves to their collective benefit.

A series of laws and exemptions to The Sherman Antitrust Act were passed in the ’30s that allowed resale price maintenance agreements to again be legal, but that ended poorly as the results were so unpopular, they were later repealed. These agreements were then per se illegal (inherently illegal) from about 1980 until 2007 when another Supreme Court decision found that they could be allowed under the Rule of Reason and the circumstances surrounding their use are considered. Basically, the business justification and resulting economic consequences play a role in determining if they’re allowed, not simply outright banned automatically in all cases. As such, Agency agreements can happen. The DOJ settlement with the publishers in the ebook case openly admitted as much. But as SCOTUS ruled, only if the Rule of Reason is applied.

A big component in imposing the Rule of Reason standard was the notion that the absence of Resale Price Maintenance agreements could allow free riders, or some sellers to piggyback unfairly on the benefits of promotion done by larger sellers. I think this point is a particularly important one to make. Keep it in mind.

The above is just a summary, somewhat simplified, of what I think are the pertinent points in the background of Resale Price Maintenance agreements as it relates to the current state of things in the publishing industry as I understand it and am about to speculate on. It didn’t happen in giant leaps, but fits and starts; laws passed and repealed, court rulings made, overturned and overruled again. SCOTUS has weighed in on these matters more than a few times, and likely will again, maybe even in the Apple case. So before I do a little extrapolating, here are some links to some relevant readings. Look for the various links to the actual court rulings and texts of the laws involved if you really want to dive in deep.

Resale Price Maintenance
Sherman Antitrust Act
Price Fixing
Rule of Reason

First two disclaimers: Everything that follows is strictly my opinion as a suspicious, cynical guy who’s read too many Agatha Christie novels. And we have no idea if Hatchette or anyone else is pushing for another Agency-type deal. Everybody and their brother seems to be assuming it is, on both sides of the issue, including me to a point, but I think it’s important to remember that we just don’t know. Amazon’s statement a few days ago referenced a lot of things that implied the dispute was, at least in part, about co-op fees and such. And Hatchette’s kept repeating the matter as “Amazon’s demands for better terms.” It could just simply be a fight over co-op, much like the S&S/B&N dispute a while back.

I couldn’t find any direct info anywhere on who actually won that battle, but I’d be willing to bet Amazon knows, or at least thinks it does. Going after co-op might mean B&N got a bump there or at least Amazon thinks they could succeed where the bookstore chain may have failed. The question really seems to be is Amazon abusing it’s market position to push for that by doing things like stopping discounting, cutting back on stock and taking away preorders? Barnes & Noble took some of the same actions, so it’s not exactly unprecedented.

I would say that’s it quite possible that they are, with some heavy qualifiers. At the very least, they’re walking an extremely fine line in the actions they’re taking. Amazon, given the size of their market share, is in a position where, as they continue to grow, that line is going to squeeze in tighter and tighter on them. The more power they accumulate, the worse these actions will look. Some would say they’ve already crossed it. And they may well be right.

However, Amazon is extremely smart. They know the general judicial trend is to allow more latitude to larger entities wielding power so long as they can show some kind of valid business reason that isn’t simply “we will crush them!” I suspect that’s why a sizable portion of their statement was an explanation of their business reasons for what they’re doing. Even if they did cross the line, you need evidence. Amazon isn’t going to leave any lying around. I’d argue that if it hadn’t been for the bungling publishers, Apple never would have gotten caught either. For Amazon to get nabbed for this kind of conduct, provided the conduct is even illegal or aggressively monopolistic, neither of which we know without knowing the terms they’re fighting over, they’re either going to have to be a lot bigger and these acts much less legally defensible or escalate up into more openly egregious actions.

Now, my attitude on this changes completely if, in fact, Agency or some kind of Resale Price Maintenance agreement is in play. If you’re going to give the producers leeway in trying to fix prices vertically, I think you also have to give some leeway to retailers in using their power in dealing with it. You can’t just say, “We’re going to let your suppliers fix prices and we’re going to stop you from doing anything about it.” That would ultimately end up with exactly what the original 1911 SCOTUS ruling said, economcally indistinguishable from horizontal price fixing. So, when faced with an opponent seeking to limit their pricing ability, they have a strong business reason to act as they have, I think. Remember, Barnes & Noble just did some of the same things and nobody’s suggesting the DOJ ring them up, so the argument against isn’t the act itself but the market strength behind it, a variation on the Rule of Reason and consideration of the circumstances that would allow Hatchette or any publisher to seek a vertical price fixing arrangement in the first place.

Some may suggest this is same argument publishers made in their defense only in reverse; “Amazon is behaving monopolistically so we had to do what we did to deal with it.” But there are limits. Amazon is a single entity, wielding only the power it’s managed to gather for itself, albeit a sizable amount. The publishers weren’t prohibited from pushing for price fixing to combat Amazon, which in and of itself is granting them leeway in their actions. Where they went off the rails is when they colluded together to do so. Price fixing situationally under justifiable conditions is ok, colluding to impose price fixing is another matter entirely. Nobody’s getting any antitrust latitude in the face of that.

The original seeds that ultimately became the reasoning behind shifting Resale Price Maintenance from per se illegal to overseen by the Rule of Reason was the notion that the absence of these agreements could create an environment where free riders benefit from larger sellers promotional activity. In the present environment, relatively free of Resale Price Maintenance agreements, there’s really nothing that, say, Barnes & Noble can do to free ride on Amazon. Install a vertical price fixing regime, however, and not only does it become possible, it seems to be what they intend to happen. Eliminate price competition among retailers, and with it, what they perceive as Amazon’s principle competitive advantage, and competitors like B&N can benefit from Amazon’s past and existing efforts to build and promote the ebook market without having actually contributed to them. They’re using a Resale Price Maintenance agreement to create the very conduct the court ruled we needed Resale Price Maintenance agreements to prevent.

Giving consideration to these circumstances, and the fact that, during the brief time Agency was imposed prior to DOJ action, one clear economic consequence we saw was higher ebook prices to consumers and considering this publisher and most of the others likely to push for these deals were just caught and punished for colluding to institute a vertical price fixing system in an attempt to attack one specific retailer, I don’t see how Agency deals should be allowed for any of these publishers, even under the Rule of Reason. I would go one step farther and say SCOTUS was mistaken to change them from per se illegal to begin with, especially since we’re possibly seeing their root reasoning for doing so directly contradicted in practice. There’s probably a damn good reason that vertical price fixing never stays outright acceptable for extended periods of time. It is price fixing, after all.

Which leads me to what I think might be the ticking time bomb in all of this, the 25% of net ebook agreements that very suddenly became almost inescapable industry standard. Check the dates on these two quotes:

“We’re confident that the current practice of paying 25% of net on ebooks will not, in the long run, prevail.”
From the Authors Guild, Dec. 15, 2009

“In a strongly worded message on its Web site on Sunday, Amazon said that while it disagreed with Macmillan’s stance, it would bow to the publisher’s plan.”
From NY Times, Jan. 31, 2010

We know now that the fight that Macmillan picked was the first strike in the collusion to install Agency that got them smacked down for antitrust violations. We also know the Authors Guild turned out, per usual, to be dead wrong. Do you think it’s a coincidence that this 25% of net rate became almost unilaterally imposed across most of the industry at the exact same time that most of the publisher’s pushing it hardest were colluding to fix prices at the retail level? That it was just a happy little accident for them that they managed to both fix retail ebook prices higher and impose ebook royalties to authors at a low level near simultaneously? This is a lawsuit and quite possibly another antitrust action waiting to happen. I can’t believe authors that got pushed into these aren’t looking at the breakdown of how bad a deal it’s turned out to be for them and how their publishers were colluding with one another to the point of attracting legal consequences at the same time and not putting their lawyers on speed dial. Look at the amounts they paid out in damages in the ebook case. If it were to be discovered that this was the result of similar collusion, that number would be much, much higher.

Ultimately though, I think these publishers would be insane to go anywhere near any kind of vertical price fixing deals right now. And if the strategy includes them having to do anything that even slightly appears like it’s being done in unison, they could be unleashing hell on themselves. If you get popped for drunk driving and as soon as you get off probation, go right out and get another one, the judge is going to throw the book at you. And, oh, if there’s this other DUI charge they were unaware of at the time they punished you for first one, too? I’m not totally sure how liability works in situations like this, but what’s the point, if there is one, where these things can go from being a civil matter involving corporate penalties and fines to somebody’s going to jail? Collusive vertical price fixing that extends to both retailers and possibly their own suppliers and then maybe a fresh collusive action at the first possible opportunity to top it off probably ought to be that point, in my opinion. Why even risk the appearance of such a thing, especially to pursue a strategy that is historically back and forth between legal and illegal that just happens to be mostly legal at this moment? How desperate are they, exactly, and how much is that desperation feeding Amazon’s negotiating position? You don’t walk out into the ocean with a big, bleeding wound and then complain when something tries to take a bite out of you.

Like I said, we have no idea if Hatchette is pursuing an Agency-type deal. And the ebook royalty looks suspicious as hell to me but it could be all above board. Amazon could be simply throwing its market weight around in ways that run afoul of antitrust law themselves. I hope they’re not. And I hope the publishers steer clear of vertical price fixing as a strategy. But even if they do, that ebook royalty is going to be a problem, I suspect. Upping that pretty quickly might be a good idea. Raving about the ebook profits you’re making while refusing to budge much, if at all, is going to piss someone off enough to start poking around. And who knows what they might find or what other bodies might be dug up in the effort?

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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  1. […] Watershed Chronicle discusses why what the publishers are trying to do still amounts to agency pricing. It won’t get treated like that, but then that’s probably a good thing. If they each, […]

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