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Amazon Subject of Antitrust Suit

SB Sarah posted about the new antitrust lawsuit filed by publisher Booklocker against Amazon. Booklocker is asking for class action status. The suit alleges an unlawful tying arrangement between Amazon’s bookstore and Amazon’s printing arm (Booksurge).

We discussed a tying suit briefly in the comments when the news of Amazon’s requirement to use its POD service or suffer a financial penalty first surfaced.

The Advantage Program requires POD publishers to give Amazon 55% of the list price, pay them $29.95/year, and pay the shipping costs for books going to Amazon.

There are great resources on the internet that explain tying and one of them is a paper before the Federal Trade Commission that addresses the illegal tying of intellectual property rights. While the IP arguments don’t necessarily pertain, the prefatory material on this link is helpful in understanding the basics of a tying suit.

Probably the most famous recent tying cases have been against Microsoft. States across the country challenged Microsoft’s tying of its browser, Internet Explorer, to its operating system. Microsoft had built up a monopoly on personal computers. While this is not illegal in the United States, there are constraints on monopoly power. It is deemed improper when a “seller exploits his dominant position in one market to expand his empire into the next.”   Times-Picayune Pub. Co. v. United States, 345 U.S. 594, 608-11 (1953).

A monopoly shouldn’t exercise its power in a way that diminishes competition and harms consumers. The Antitrust laws are designed, not to ensure that a company acts more altruistic, but to protect consumers and therefore foster a competitive market.

When Microsoft was tying its web browser with its operating system, it had little incentive to be technologically innovative. The market, courts view, should be protected in a way to foster competition.   In proving a per se tying, Booksurge will need to establish the following four elements:

(1) two separate products or services are involved, (the retail part and the publishing arm)
(2) the sale or agreement to sell one is conditioned on the purchase of the other, (this is where it gets a little muddy, I think. You can still use the retail part if you don’t use the publishing arm of Amazon, but you must pay a higher rate)
(3) the seller has sufficient economic power in the market for the tying product to enable it to restrain trade in the market for the tied product, (if the majority of sales one makes is through Amazon and this is true for the members of the affected class, I think that this would be satisfied) and
(4) a not insubstantial amount of interstate commerce in the tied product is affected.   (SB Sarah’s post quoted the lawyer for Booklocker.com stating that there were over 4000+ publishers/consumers who might be affected by this)

This will be an interesting case to watch.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

5 Comments

  1. Shiloh Walker
    May 23, 2008 @ 09:48:23

    I’m curious what your take is on this, Jane. You think those filing the suit have a leg to stand on?

    Personally, I do but I don’t know law and Amazon irritates me anyway so maybe that’s playing into my opinion.

    ReplyReply

  2. Jane
    May 23, 2008 @ 10:07:03

    I’d like to read the petition. I think the problem is the conditioned purchase. The 1992 Kodak Eastman case is considered one of the more important modern decisions on tying. Kodak would not sell replacement parts for its copying equipment. If you wanted to get your copying machine serviced, you had to hire Kodak. Private firms could not compete because they couldn’t get the parts. Kodak owned or controlled almost the entire parts market for its copier. Because Kodak service was the only game in town, it could charge higher prices – no competition.

    With the Amazon case, you certainly have a bundling or a tying but Amazon doesn’t control 100 percent of the retail end of the book market. I haven’t done a ton of research on this so I don’t know what the case law has been since ’92 and admittedly, I haven’t studied anti-trust since law school. I only know what the big cases are because that was what was taught.

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  3. Denton Lawyer
    May 23, 2008 @ 12:54:20

    I’m going to have to read the entire suit before I could make a judgement call. There are a lot of elements of an anti-trust case that must be present in order for it to be viable.

    You’re right Jane. This will be an interesting case.

    ReplyReply

  4. veinglory
    May 23, 2008 @ 17:41:27

    I’m pretty skeptical, but good luck to them.

    ReplyReply

  5. Mary
    May 23, 2008 @ 23:37:11

    Considering that I just received a $95 check from my state’s Microsoft lawsuit, I’m very interested in this one. *grins* Might help out the smaller publishers.

    ReplyReply

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