Agency and Anti-Competitive Behavior: Looking back a century

I was reading Barry Eisler’s takedown of the most recent Amazon hit piece (Surprise! From yet another author with a book under contract to Hachette who didn’t think it necessary to disclose that fact. Funny how often that happens. You’d almost think it was a pattern of intentionally misleading readers into believing they don’t have a direct financial stake in the matter. Yeah, almost). During a comment I left there, I went back and plucked a quote or two from an old SCOTUS decision ruling against agreements that allow a manufacturer to fix the retail price of their goods. As I glossed over the text of the case, I found many interesting points of reference.

Now understand, this is from a century ago. These issues have been adjudicated again and again over the years, so this case is in no way binding or even any sort of standard for how these deals are dealt with today. But as I was reading it, I was struck with how much sense it made. Perhaps this is one instance where the traditional ways of thinking about something (resale price maintenance agreements or vertical price fixing, if you will) truly should have been maintained.

The case, Dr. Miles Medical Co. v. John D. Park & Sons Co. (220 U.S. 373, 1911) involved a pharmaceutical company who created a network of contracts with both wholesalers and retailers whereby to access their products, they had to agree to numerous stipulations about the resale of those goods, most importantly related to a minimum price they were allowed to sell to the public, under penalty referenced in the contract. The company refused to sell to any entity that didn’t agree with its dictates and further, was attempting to squash a retailer who managed to get its products and was selling them below their required costs. Dr. Miles lost this particular case, the court finding at the time that the company had no statutory legal right to impose such requirements on wholesalers or retailers and, further, such agreements, enforced only through the “monopoly of production” as the Court put it, ran afoul of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Much of the following is from Justice Charles Evans Hughes writing the majority decision, with some excerpts from other applicable rulings. I’m also choosing to quote liberally, taking longer blocks of thought in some places. If I learned anything from the Orwell kerfuffle, it’s to read the entire line of thought, not simply the one or two sentences you agree with. Here’s a link to the full text of the ruling, including the dissent penned by none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes, that’s also fascinating for how similar it is to some of the pro-Agency arguments I’ve seen in its lack of concern for competition and the best interests of consumers. It’s super-long and pretty dry, lawyerly stuff, but well worth the read if you have any interest in the background of what Agency actually means and what it does in market conditions. I’ve excerpted a few high points to discuss. The bold type is my own added emphasis.

“But this argument rests on monopoly of production, and not on the secrecy of the process or the particular fact that may confer that monopoly. It implies that if, for any reason, monopoly of production exists, it carries with it the right to control the entire trade of the produced article, and to prevent any competition that otherwise might arise between wholesale and retail dealers. The principle would not be limited to secret processes, but would extend to goods manufactured by anyone who secured control of the source of supply of a necessary raw material or ingredient. But because there is monopoly of production, it certainly cannot be said that there is no public interest in maintaining freedom of trade with respect to future sales after the article has been placed on the market and the producer has parted with his title. Moreover, every manufacturer, before sale, controls the articles he makes. With respect to these, he has the rights of ownership, and his dominion does not depend upon whether the process of manufacture is known or unknown, or upon any special advantage he may possess by reason of location, materials, or efficiency. The fact that the market may not be supplied with the particular article unless he produces it is a practical consequence which does not enlarge his right of property in what he does produce.”

Here’s the idea of “monopoly of production.” From the book trade, only Hachette can produce Hachette books. They are the only source. They have a monopoly of production on Hachette books. What they’re trying to say, and what Justice Hughes is refuting here, is that this monopoly of production gives them rights to control the product, specifically it’s pricing, after its been transferred to another party. Dr. Miles was telling people who bought their drugs what they could sell them for. Hachette is trying to tell Amazon what to sell its books for.

Note the implication that the reasoning behind this is to inhibit or prevent competition. Hughes certainly didn’t. He makes a clear point that once a product has been placed on the market, the title transferred (sold) to another entity, that the public interest is in freedom of trade in future sales. Dr. Miles was arguing just the opposite, and by extension, so is Hachette. They want to restrain trade in that area. I think it’s telling that the principle weapon most of those calling for action against Amazon for its market power advocate for is, itself, a form of restraint of trade against retailers.

I also like the last sentence there. Just because you’re the only one who can produce or bring your products to market, that doesn’t mean it gives you any more rights of property than anyone else. No special snowflakes need apply.

“Nor can the manufacturer by rule and notice, in the absence of contract or statutory right, even though the restriction be known to purchasers, fix prices for future sales. It has been held by this Court that no such privilege exists under the copyright statutes, although the owner of the copyright has the sole right to vend copies of the copyrighted production. Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus, 210 U. S. 339. There, the Court said:

‘The owner of the copyright in this case did sell copies of the book in quantities and at a price satisfactory to it. It has exercised the right to vend. What the complainant contends for embraces not only the right to sell the copies, but to qualify the title of a future purchaser by the reservation of the right to have the remedies of the statute against an infringer because of the printed notice of its purpose so to do unless the purchaser sells at a price fixed in the notice. To add to the right of exclusive sale the authority to control all future retail sales, by a notice that such sales must be made at a fixed sum, would give a right not included in the terms of the statute, and, in our view, extend its operation, by construction, beyond its meaning, when interpreted with a view to ascertaining the legislative intent in its enactment.'”

The statute referred to there is copyright. Our current situation isn’t the first time publishers tried to fix retail prices for books. The case here is from 1908. A publisher included a disclaimer on the copyright page of their books that said selling this book under the price printed on it constituted copyright infringement. They were interpreting the “exclusive right” to produce and sell conferred to authors and creators in copyright statute as meaning it gave them the right to control the uses (prices) of the books after they’d been sold (title transferred).

Notice, again, the intent of this action was not to simply sell copies but to qualify the title of the buyer, restrict what they can sell it for after they’ve bought it. See a pattern developing? The publisher lost this case, by the way. Also note the phrase “in the absence of contract” in the first bold quote there in relation to the ability to fix prices. That relates directly to this next part:

“Whatever right the manufacturer may have to project his control beyond his own sales must depend not upon an inherent power incident to production and original ownership, but upon agreement.”

There’s the thing. These deals weren’t even totally illegal then if, and only if, they resulted from a fair, willing agreement of parties. If a retailer liked, they could grant this right to a manufacturer in a contract and it would be perfectly valid. My question is why would they? What kind of incentives would a manufacturer have to offer to entice a retailer to willingly allow it’s trade to be restrained? That’s probably why there aren’t too many of these types of agreements without some severe power imbalance in favor of the manufacturer or some form of coercion.

The publishers couldn’t get Amazon on board through negotiation, they didn’t have enough to offer for them to even consider it, so they colluded to force it. Now, they’re in the same boat. Want the world, don’t possess the resources to get it. It’s got to be frustrating, especially when you’re a company that used to possess just such leverage and resources. But that’s the way this works. You have to earn your leverage. You don’t just get it because you want it. I suspect that’s why the contract exemption exists. No retailer would accept a deal like that in absence of some likely illegal coercion without a damn good reason for doing so. Amazon certainly doesn’t have one, and I have a hard time envisioning what a publisher like Hachette could possibly bring to offer that would even make a dent. A much higher cut of the proceeds to Amazon would seem like a minimum starting point and I doubt that would even really open the conversation. That’s the thing, in the absence of government mandate or intervention, an Agency type agreement is never going to be willingly negotiated between a healthy retailer and book publishers. Which, again, is calling for special dispensation from government that other industries don’t get.

“The present case is not analogous to that of a sale of goodwill, or of an interest in a business, or of the grant of a right to use a process of manufacture. The complainant has not parted with any interest in its business or instrumentalities of production. It has conferred no right by virtue of which purchasers of its products may compete with it. It retains complete control over the business in which it is engaged, manufacturing what it pleases and fixing such prices for its own sales as it may desire. Nor are we dealing with a single transaction, conceivably unrelated to the public interest. The agreements are designed to maintain prices after the complainant has parted with the title to the articles, and to prevent competition among those who trade in them.”

Third time’s a charm. These agreements are designed to prevent competition. Everybody now! The earlier portion of this is interesting, too, in that it clearly notes that the manufacturer is giving up nothing while simultaneously taking rights away from retailers (and wholesalers, in this case). See my previous comments on agreements. You’ve got to give a little to get a little and, in cases like this, the manufacturer doesn’t want to give at all, only take.

“The bill asserts the importance of a standard retail price, and alleges generally that confusion and damage have resulted from sales at less than the prices fixed. But the advantage of established retail prices primarily concerns the dealers. The enlarged profits which would result from adherence to the established rates would go to them, and not to the complainant. It is through the inability of the favored dealers to realize these profits, on account of the described competition, that the complainant works out its alleged injury.

If there be an advantage to the manufacturer in the maintenance of fixed retail prices, the question remains whether it is one which he is entitled to secure by agreements restricting the freedom of trade on the part of dealers who own what they sell. As to this, the complainant can fare no better with its plan of identical contracts than could the dealers themselves if they formed a combination and endeavored to establish the same restrictions, and thus to achieve the same result, by agreement with each other. If the immediate advantage they would thus obtain would not be sufficient to sustain such a direct agreement, the asserted ulterior benefit to the complainant cannot be regarded as sufficient to support its system. But agreements or combinations between dealers, having for their sole purpose the destruction of competition and the fixing of prices, are injurious to the public interest and void. They are not saved by the advantages which the participants expect to derive from the enhanced price to the consumer.”

What he’s describing there is horizontal price fixing by a cartel of retailers. And he equates the end result of manufacturers controlling retail prices precisely to that. The results are the same. He also makes no bones about describing such deals as having the sole purpose of destroying competition. We wouldn’t want a group of retailers to band together and fix prices. Somehow, though, we should be in favor of it when it’s manufacturers, even though the ultimate results are the same?

See what happened here? The dealers who signed the agreements didn’t like the competition from the ones who didn’t and sold underneath the manufacturer’s required retail price. The competition cut into their guaranteed profits. Here’s a way a manufacturer could entice a retailer, with the notion of larger, locked in profits. There’s a counter argument to that relating to sales volume and how you actually attract sales if there’s no retail competition to speak of. Is a higher profit per item but fewer sales (and little means to spur them) actually good for a retailer? But that’s a different matter. What’s happening here is that Dr. Miles isn’t simply setting the retail price after title has been transferred, they’re actually picking winners and losers among retailers. They’re not only restraining trade but deciding who gets to engage in competition and to what extent that competition is allowed to go. It’s the “give ’em an Inch and they’ll take a mile” theory.

“The complainant having sold its product at prices satisfactory to itself, the public is entitled to whatever advantage may be derived from competition in the subsequent traffic.”

Yes, the public is. That’s part of the deal. Everyone in the chain has rights up to the point they give up title to the property. Their rights stop there, transferred to the buyer, until they themselves give up title. It’s how things work. Giving anyone in the chain power to dictate actions of participants you should no longer have control over throws everything out of balance. There’s a huge difference between not being able to get most favorable terms from a retailer, as Hachette seems unable to do, and forcing those terms on them through a restraint of trade. It’s very difficult to argue that manufacturers controlling retail prices is anything but a restraint of trade against retailers. The key here is, with that restraint, the public doesn’t benefit from the competition of subsequent traffic in the goods. There is no competition. This breaks the covenant. Everyone has rights. Stay in your lane. In these scenarios, manufacturers benefit while retailers lose autonomy and consumers lose the price benefits of competition. And they are doing so by claiming a right based on a monopoly of production.

This last part is from the dissent in this ruling, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

“What, then, is the ground upon which we interfere in the present case? Of course, it is not the interest of the producer. No one, I judge, cares for that. It hardly can be the interest of subordinate vendors, as there seems to be no particular reason for preferring them to the originator and first vendor of the product. Perhaps it may be assumed to be the interest of the consumers and the public. On that point, I confess that I am in a minority as to larger issues than are concerned here. I think that we greatly exaggerate the value and importance to the public of competition in the production or distribution of an article (here it is only distribution) as fixing a fair price. What really fixes that is the competition of conflicting desires.

We, none of us, can have as much as we want of all the things that we want. Therefore, we have to choose. As soon as the price of something that we want goes above the point at which we are willing to give up other things to have that, we cease to buy it and buy something else. Of course, I am speaking of things that we can get along without. There may be necessaries that sooner or later must be dealt with like short rations in a shipwreck, but they are not Dr. Miles’ medicines. With regard to things like the latter, it seems to me that the point of most profitable returns marks the equilibrium of social desires, and determines the fair price in the only sense in which I can find meaning in those words. The Dr. Miles Medical Company knows better than we do what will enable it to do the best business. We must assume its retail price to be reasonable, for it is so alleged and the case is here on demurrer, so I see nothing to warrant my assuming that the public will not be served best by the company’s being allowed to carry out its plan. I cannot believe that, in the long run, the public will profit by this Court’s permitting knaves to cut reasonable prices for some ulterior purpose of their own, and thus to impair, if not to destroy, the production and sale of articles which it is assumed to be desirable that the public should be able to get.”

So answer me a question: if there’s no competition in production, no competition in distribution and you’re supporting agreements that restrict or eliminate competition in retail, when exactly should we be concerned about the value of competition to consumers? I suppose there’s no point in worrying about the value of competition when there isn’t any. I’m stunned by his blunt statement that Dr. Miles knows best and that we must assume the retail prices they are requiring are reasonable. Why, in the name of all things great and holy, would you assume that? His colleagues who supported this ruling certainly didn’t. In fact, I would argue just the opposite. You allow someone outsized power unearned by statute or not gained through the crucible of competition, and I think you have to assume their retail price is not reasonable until shown to be otherwise. Power unchecked by competition doesn’t usually result in best case scenarios for customers. It slows innovation and raises prices. Say what you want about Amazon being a monopoly, there is very little doubt that they behave in a fiercely competitive manner. I’m not sure the same can be said for Hachette or any of the large publishers. More the veneer of competition wrapped around what they perceive as an already divvied up industry.

His point at the end is almost word for word something I’ve seen from publisher supporters. If they can’t charge what they want, they’ll stop producing and the public interest is damaged in turn. It’s nonsense. They can’t do it? So stop. No one cares. Their writers will find other outlets, books will continue to be made and sold and read in the millions upon millions. The life or death of a Hachette is totally irrelevant to the totality of the industry. It is relevant to the people whose livlihoods depend on them. That’s why they should be doing everything they can to stop the self destructive stupidity and hubris that has overtaken the company. Your paycheck depends on it. Amazon is not the one who’ll be pulling your next book contract or laying you off in a year. Amazon will be saying, “you know, we just wanted to sell more of your books. And we wanted you to get paid more while doing so.”

Here’s my point: no one wants Amazon to become an all-consuming monster. Everyone has concerns about their market size and how they decide to wield the power that comes with that. But, as yet, there’s nothing illegal about what they’ve done. The publishers, including Hachette, can’t say the same thing. When you talk about Agency contracts, understand what’s being discussed isn’t simply a different business model, it’s a departure from the basic market structure we’ve had for a very long time. Allowing manufacturers to dictate retail prices to stores isn’t a right they should have, it’s one they specifically don’t have because, in order to do so, it involves instituting a restraint of trade against those stores. More than that, as this case even illustrated, the manufacturer in control of these agreements, garnered through its own monopoly of production, gains more than pricing power, they gain the ability to preferentially choose winners and losers among retailers and even who is or isn’t allowed to compete at all.

Negotiation and a willing arrangement is the proper way to pursue deals like this, its worst excesses kept in check by the give and take of deal making. But the publishers failed at that. They didn’t have the right incentives to negotiate a deal. So they moved on to collusion to force the deal through. That didn’t work either as the DOJ was all over it almost immediately, the attempt was so blatant. Now, having failed to negotiate or coerce a deal, the next step is to cry to the government to step in and force the issue. That, I’m certain, is every bit as doomed to failure. There’s a point where you have to let go of the way you wish things to be and deal with the way things actually are. The longer this particular fight goes on, the farther behind the companies most embroiled in it will fall.

If you’d like to argue that we should get rid of all the anti-competitive actions in publishing, from every side, then that’s an idea I fully support. But by arguing that publishers should have the right to price however they want, that’s not what you’re advocating. You don’t want to clean the industry of anti-competitive behavior, you just want to be the only ones allowed to use it. Arguing for anti-competitive behavior (and resale price maintenance agreements are anti-competitive by nature) to combat what you perceive as other anti-competitive behavior is a non-starter. If my neighbor breaks into my house and steals my tv, then the next night, I break in and steal his tv, we’re both going to jail. I may seem justified but really I’d be just as wrong.

Editor’s Note: If the previous 4,000 words weren’t enough for you, here’s 1,500 more where I make some rebuttals to myself here, and then rebut those rebuttals.

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


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Fascinating article, but here’s what I still don’t understand. Apple sells their products at the price they specify. It’s virtually impossible to find an Apple product at a discount. But no one seems to care. However, when the Big 5 try it, everyone squawks.

    Just to be clear, I’m not supporting the Big 5, but from the way I read your article, it looks like Apple and Hachette are basically doing the same thing. Or am I missing an important distinction?

    • Those are negotiated deals. Apple has the leverage if it so chooses. I don’t know if the retailers carrying Apple have the right to discount or not if they all tend to stick close to standard price. Verizon, for instance, routinely sells new iPhones at a big discount with a phone plan so they must, at least, have some discounting ability. And I’ve bought a lot of their computers over the years at various places I’ve worked. You can find a range of prices prices on them if you look. Apple also sells a sizable number of their products directly through their stores and their online store, where they obviously dictate the prices.

      • That makes sense. Thanks!

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