Even before the landmark United States v. Microsoft Corp. antitrust case, competition law was a bit schizophrenic when it came to the question of interoperability. Monopolists have no general duty to make their products work with those of competitors, but what about the situation where a dominant firm deliberately re-designs products to render them incompatible with others? That is the provocative question raised by several pending antitrust lawsuits filed against Green Mountain Coffee, manufacturer of the Keurig line of single-serve coffee makers and coffee “pod” products.
TreeHouse Foods alleged in a complaint last winter that after its patent on “K-Cups” expired in 2012, Green Mountain:
abused its dominance in the brewer market by coercing business partners at every level of the K-Cup distribution system to enter into anticompetitive agreements intended to unlawfully maintain Green Mountain’s monopoly over the markets in which K-Cups are sold. Even in the face of these exclusionary agreements that have unreasonably restrained competition, some companies, such as TreeHouse, have fought hard to win market share away from Green Mountain on the merits by offering innovative, quality products at substantially lower prices. In response, Green Mountain has announced a new anticompetitive plan to maintain its monopoly by redesigning its brewers to lock out competitors’ products. Such lock-out technology cannot be justified based on any purported consumer benefit, and Green Mountain itself has admitted that the lock-out technology is not essential for the new brewers’ function.
In the consolidated multi-district litigation that ensued, Green Mountain is specifically charged with designing a so-called “Keurig 2.0” brewer which features technology that allows it to detect whether a coffee cartridge is one of Keurig’s K-Cups or is made by a third party that does not have a licensing agreement with the company. The machine will not brew unlicensed coffee pods.
The federal court overseeing the MDL cases denied the plaintiffs’ motion for an injunction on procedural grounds in September, issuing an opinion which reasoned that commercial success of the “2.0” brewers was uncertain and that coffee competitors would still have open access to some 26 million Keurig “1.0” machines for several years. In other words, the court did not reach the merits of the monopolization claim against Green Mountain.
So where does that leave Keurig? As Ali Sternburg observed before revelations of its new 2.0 technology, Green Mountain’s prior 20 years of patent protection allowed the company to build a competitive advantage by “cultivating its brand (which likely involves trademark protection), honing its supply chain efficiencies, and generally maintaining its dominance due to having the first-mover advantage.” More than ten years before those patents first issued, moreover, the federal courts had ruled that new product introductions by monopoly firms — in one well-known instance, Kodak — would not be considered an antitrust violation because “a firm that pioneers new technology will often introduce the first of a new product type along with related, ancillary products that can only be utilized effectively with the newly developed technology.”
Continue reading K-Cups, Innovation and Interoperability
Nearly six months before this week’s reveal of iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple was in talks with Comcast Corp. about “teaming up for a streaming-television service that would use an Apple set-top box and get special treatment on Comcast’s cables to ensure it bypasses congestion on the Web.” For content, the product reportedly would not only offer users access to on-demand movies, TV programs and other apps, including games, but also live Comcast cable programming. This raises a serious question whether such an arrangement would represent a procompetitive development or instead further delay a languishing 20-year federal effort to create a commercially viable retail market for cable set-top boxes (“STBs”).
There are three sets of obstacles potentially standing in the way of this initiative. First are business issues associated with customer control. As commentary noted at the time:
Back in February it seemed both Comcast and DirecTV were reluctant to allow Apple to develop a system where customers logged in using their Apple credentials instead of their pay-TV accounts. The fundamental question of who gets to have the primary relationship with the customer has played prominently in Apple’s negotiations with magazine and newspaper publishers in the past, so it makes sense that the issue would pop up again in a different medium. Given that Comcast has been investing in its own advanced set-top boxes, the cable giant is probably not ready to cede too much ground too quickly.
The second set of issues relates to whether Apple, or any content provider, should be permitted to pay for routing of its IPTV traffic as a managed service, receiving priority handling for the packets involved, from ISPs. That is a subset of the network neutrality debate, commonly referred to as “paid prioritization,” that continues to rage before the FCC and Congress.
Yet a third set of issues has received scant attention in the business media. That is, how would an Apple STB deal with the 1996 legal mandate that so-called “navigation devices” be available for retail purchase by consumers, in other words unbundled from cable television and broadband service? Apple is known to have the most popular, addictive and tightly integrated ecosystem of all technology companies. The company is famous for steadfastly protecting this closed ecosystem and declining to make its hardware, or most software, interoperable with other platforms. The devices and software Apple sells are designed to work well with each other and sync easily so that preferences and media can be copied or shared with multiple devices without much effort. Applications work on many devices at the same time — even with a single purchase — and user interfaces are very similar across devices. Sure, out of necessity Apple offers iTunes software for Windows (supporting both the iTunes Store for music and video purchases and iPhone syncing on Windows PCs), but at their core most Apple products work best, if at all, only with other Apple products.
As a business strategy, the closed Apple ecosystem experienced some very bad years in the mid-1990s, yet today has propelled Apple into its current status as the world’s most valuable corporation. As a legal and policy matter, though, things could be quite different.
Continue reading Apple’s Cable Set-Top Box and Interoperability
On behalf of the Sports Fans Coalition, I filed a brief yesterday with the FCC urging it to block the acquisition by Comcast Corp. of Time Warner Cable Inc. The gist of the argument is that the anticompetitive effects of vertical integration by cable systems have now reached crisis proportions with the ongoing refusal — already more than five months old and with no end in sight — of TWC to license Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games for cable or satellite distribution, or local broadcast, on any network other than its own SportsNet LA cable programming channel.
Hence this bold call for a remedy:
The Commission [should] hold the Applications in abeyance, declining to act all in this docket, unless and until TWC makes the SportsNet LA channel, and its exclusive Los Angeles Dodgers baseball content, available to all competing MVPDs at “fair market value and on non-discriminatory prices, terms and conditions,” and on the merits either (a) deny the Comcast-TWC request for transfer-of-control in its entirety, or (b) require the divestiture of all of Comcast’s RSN properties — sufficient for an independent competitor to operate the channels on profitable, going concern basis — as a condition to approving the acquisition of TWC.
Last month a Paris appeals court annulled some €3.9 million (US$5.2M) in fines imposed on endive producers and their trade associations by the French Competition Authority (the Autorité de la concurrence). Not dissuaded, that French competition agency just slapped a €1.6M (US$2.1M) fine on Caribbean yogurt maker Societe Nouvelle des Yaourts de Littee (SNYL) for falsely questioning the safety and quality of a rival brand in Martinique and Guadeloupe, characterizing the practice as “abuse of dominance” in the marketplace.
This epitomizes a fundamental disconnect between antitrust law and competition policy in the U.S. and that of many other nations. (No, the French are not alone…) American antitrust principles and decisions generally limit the reach of competition law — aside from competitor collision like price-fixing cartels — to business conduct that uses market power in an exclusionary manner. As the Supreme Court emphasized in 1993, “[e]ven an act of pure malice by one business competitor against another does not, without more, state a claim under the federal antitrust laws; those laws do not create a federal law of unfair competition or ‘purport to afford remedies for all torts committed by or against persons engaged in interstate commerce.'” In sharp contrast, the FCA reasoned about yogurt that “the dissemination of misleading and disparaging remarks by a dominant operator against one of its competitors is a serious practice with regard to competition rules.”
“Between December 2007 and December 2009, SNYL broadcast information discrediting the sanitary quality of Laiterie de Saint-Malo products using the questionable results of bacteriological tests and questioning the irregular consumption deadlines affixed to its products,” the FCA reported in a (translated) statement. This led a number of retailers to pull Malo products from shelves for an extended period. “This behavior had the effect of limiting product sales of Laiterie de Saint-Malo in Martinique and Guadeloupe — an abuse of dominant position prohibited by Article L 420-2 of the Commercial Code,” the FCA concluded.
In the United States, legal standards for proving antitrust claims are rightly rigorous; they are strict in order to reduce the risk that enforcement of the antitrust laws may chill the very sort of vigorous, competitive conduct they are intended to encourage. It’s been true forat least 35 years that the Sherman Act “is not a panacea for all evils that may infect business life.” Legendary antitrust law scholars Phillip Areeda and Herbert Hovenkamp have advocated a nearly insurmountable presumption against deception and fraud serving as the basis for a monopolization claim, a presumption most courts have readily embraced. As one court of appeals cogently explained, “[i]solated tortious activity alone does not constitute exclusionary conduct for purposes of a [Sherman Act] § 2 violation, absent a significant and more than a temporary effect on competition, and not merely on a competitor or customer…. Business torts will be violative of § 2 only in ‘rare gross cases.’”
The difference is that between competition and consumer protection, which are quite distinct concepts in American jurisprudence. If a firm uses a monopoly to harm competition without business justification, that’s an antitrust violation. If a firm lies about a competitor’s products or runs false advertising, that’s a deceptive business practice. The two legal regimes are directed at different constituencies and conduct, which is why the Federal Trade Commission Act was amended in the 1930s to add a separate provision (Section 5) for “unfair or deceptive” business practices, and why the FTC accordingly is separated into its two principal divisions: the Bureau of Competition and the Bureau of Consumer Protection. Likewise, the Lanham Act specifically prohibits false advertising and provides a damages remedy for injured companies. Thus, false representations around a firm’s own, or it’s competitor’s, products can be legally actionable, as the Supreme Court again ruled this year in a case about beverage labeling (Pom Wonderful v. Coca-Cola). They’re just not an antitrust violation in the United States.
Continue reading There Go the French Again On Competition
There’s been much press coverage of the travails of the AmLaw 100 — America’s largest law firms. Clients are aggressively pushing back against ever-increasing hourly rates and significant inefficiencies. Storied firms have been folding, merging and laying off staff and even attorneys at unprecedented levels. Electronic discovery specialists and legal outsourcing are compressing margins for the litigation work that historically fueled big firm profits. Non-traditional legal providers are hardly faring better. Clearspire, a much-heralded pioneer of the virtual law firm concept, closed shop in June.
Yet at the same time — and perhaps as a consequence — the market for legal startups is booming. VentureBeat commented that the profession’s ongoing transition is “fueling innovation throughout the entire industry.” In 2009, just 15 legal services startups were listed on AngelList. There are now more than 400 startups and almost 1,000 investors. A whopping $458 million was invested into legal startups last year, a remarkable increase from the $66 million that went into the space in 2012. Legal entrepreneurs are focused on two different objectives: helping lawyers do their work better, faster and cheaper, and making the law more accessible, sometimes eliminating the need for lawyers altogether.
It is the second, consumer-facing portion of this trend that portends a fundamental change in the legal market. By giving both individual and corporate consumers the resources to do it yourself, today’s crop of disruptive legal startups is laying the groundwork for an era in which software tools, social sharing and document comparison-assembly programs are positioned to replace attorneys’ stock in trade, namely reuse of contracts and other legal “forms.”
A century ago the bar protected itself with arcane Latin phrases and obscure judicial reporters. Two decades ago, it used the expense of private legal research databases like LexisNexis, an information barrier that is increasingly archaic in today’s era of Web-enabled courts and Google Scholar. With the present challenge to the largest traditional domain of legal practice — creation, revision and execution of legally binding documents — technology is breaking down walls that made have legal U.S. services unaffordable, and thus essentially unavailable, to many except the wealthy those at the opposite end of the economic spectrum who qualify for free and pro bono legal services.
Continue reading Legal Disruptions Redux
The French have a wonderful saying, la plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, which roughly translates to “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” That’s an apt description of current, high-profile wrangling in the United States about music licensing under federal copyright law. Despite all the jarring changes to the recording industry over the past decade — remember Tower Records? — it’s the same issues and (mostly) the same players as always, arguing over a Rube Goldberg-like system of arcane complexity.
Today the House of Representatives (specifically the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet) will hold a second round of hearings on music licensing. This inquiry coincides with a recent announcement by the Justice Department that it will review — and solicit public feedback on — the 73-year-old antitrust decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI, two groups which act as licensing clearinghouses for a range of outlets that use music, including radio stations, websites and even restaurants and doctors’ offices. As the New York Times has observed, “billions of dollars in royalties are at stake, and the lobbying fight that is very likely to unfold would pit Silicon Valley giants like Pandora and Google against music companies and songwriter groups.”
According to the consent decrees, which were instituted in 1941 after federal antitrust investigations, ASCAP and BMI cannot refuse licenses to music outlets that request them. These two “performance rights organizations” (PROs) have operated under this structure for decades, but in recent years have lost important legal cases having to do with licensing. Earlier in 2014, for instance, ASCAP lost a rate-setting case against Pandora in which several prominent music publishing executives were criticized harshly by the presiding federal judge. In response, major publishers like Sony and Universal Music Group have begun to openly discuss withdrawing from ASCAP and BMI, a move that would further complicate the licensing process.
Continue reading Music Licensing—La Plus Ça Change?
There’s a famous old political adage — “where you stand is where sit” (also known as Miles’ Law) — meaning basically that government policy positions are dictated more by agency imperative and institutional memory than objective consideration of the public interest. A related concept is “regulatory capture,” where administrative agencies over time become defenders of the status quo and pursue objectives more for regulated firms as their constituency than consumers. Capture theory is closely related to the “rent-seeking” and “political failure” theories developed by the public choice school of economics. Or as Harold Demsetz put it well in his influential 1968 article, Why Regulate Utilities?, “in utility industries, regulation has often been sought because of the inconvenience of competition.”
That’s no longer limited to electricity companies and other public utilities these days. With the advent of rapid, low-cost entry into previously sheltered markets, powered by technology and the sharing economy, today’s incumbent industries are taking regulatory capture and politics as rent seeking to new heights. At DisCo we’ve written extensively about Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Tesla and many other disruptive new start-ups that are facing a backlash from established industries (taxis, hotels and auto dealers, respectively) which use consumer protection as a Trojan Horse to disguise preventing or delaying competition on price, features and service. Politicians in locales as diverse as New York, New Jersey, San Antonio and Seattle (believe it or not!) have, wittingly it seems, gone along so far.
This is where what antitrust lawyers dub competition advocacy comes into play. Most antitrust policy in the U.S. is made in federal court as a result of merger, monopolization and horizontal collusion prosecutions launched by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). But due to our federal-state system and a judge-made doctrine allowing states to exempt some markets from competition despite federal antitrust demands (government action, and private conduct to obtain such action, is challengeable in only relative narrow circumstances), much of the battle takes place in the legislative and regulatory arenas. Accordingly, competition advocacy is the primary tool available to antitrust enforcers in the U.S. to oppose state and local regulations favoring established firms over start-ups and parochially sheltering in-state companies from out-of-state competitors. The result is that for three decades the federal antitrust agencies have engaged in affirmative outreach to state and local legislators and regulators in the form of comments, letters and occasional lawsuits that seek to drive home the basic truths that competition outperforms regulation and the law should not pick winners and losers when it comes to evolving markets. (State attorneys general also undertake competition advocacy, principally through amicus briefs, as well.)
Continue reading Competition Advocacy Matters—Here’s Why and How
Three high-level staffers at the Federal Trade Commission (Andy Gavil, Debbie Feinstein and Marty Gaynorare) are backing Tesla Motors Inc. in its ongoing fight to sell electric cars directly to consumers. As we’ve observed, Tesla forgoes traditional auto dealers in favor of its own retail showrooms. But that business model was recently banned by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission — and is under fire in many other states as well — as a measure supposedly to protect consumers.
The ubiquitous state laws in question were originally put into place to prevent big automakers from establishing distribution monopolies that crowd out dealerships, which tend to be locally owned and family run. They were intended to promote market competition, in other words. But the FTC officials say they worry (as have we at DisCo) that the laws have instead become protectionist, walling off new innovation. “FTC staff have commented on similar efforts to bar new rivals and new business models in industries as varied as wine sales, taxis, and health care,” the officials write in their post. “How manufacturers choose to supply their products and services to consumers is just as much a function of competition as what they sell — and competition ultimately provides the best protections for consumers and the best chances for new businesses to develop and succeed. Our point has not been that new methods of sale are necessarily superior to the traditional methods — just that the determination should be made through the competitive process.”
As Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk noted earlier this year, “the auto dealer franchise laws were originally put in place for a just cause and are now being twisted to an unjust purpose.” Yes, indeed. It is pure rent seeking by obsolescent firms. State and local regulators have eliminated the direct purchasing option by taking steps to shelter existing middlemen from new competition. That’s not at all consumer protection, it is instead economic protectionism for a politically powerful constituency. Thanks to the FTC staff, some brave state legislators may now be emboldened to resist the temptation to decide how consumers should be permitted to buy cars.
Unfortunately, the issue is not limited to automobiles. I wrote recently about how in New York City, officials want to ban Airbnb because its apartment rental sharing service is not in compliance with hotel safety (and taxation) rules. The New York Times last Wednesday editorialized in support of that approach, arguing that Airbnb is reducing the supply of apartments and increasing rents. They’re wrong, of course, because short-term visits obviously do not substitute for years-long apartment leases. But the more important issue is that one economic problem does not justify reducing competition in a separate market. If New York actually has an apartment rent price problem, banning competition for hotels is no more a solution than prohibiting direct-to-consumer auto sales.
Originally prepared for and reposted with permission of the Disruptive Competition Project.
Tuesday was a big day in the world of tech-powered disruptive innovation. What the news of April 22nd shows, however, is expanding use of the legal process by incumbent industries to thwart change — and the unfortunately all too frequent concurrence of regulators and courts with that ancient mantra of obsolescent businesses, namely “consumer protection.” Old, entrenched industries frequently lean on their political connections and get the government to come up with some new justification (or recycle an old one) for shutting down upstart rivals or, at the very least, undermining their competitive advantages.
Tuesday witnessed two potentially landmark events, ones that may in time change this familiar paradigm. The first was the morning hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court in ABC v. Aereo, the broadcast networks’ copyright law challenge to the now well-known streaming IPTV start-up. The second, just slightly later in the day, were oral arguments at a New York state court in Albany over whether Airbnb will be permitted to offer its peer-to-peer apartment rental services in New York City, where a 2010 measure meant to curb unregulated hotels prohibits renting out an apartment for less than a month.
The DisCo Project has devoted a series of posts to the Aereo case. Like a Sony Betamax for the 21st century, the Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether moving technology that is lawful for an individual to use on his or her own becomes a copyright violation if offered over the Internet. But the major broadcast networks (like the movie studios who opposed VCR recording in the 1980s) are convinced their entire business model will collapse if Aereo is sanctioned, threatening the nuclear option of stopping over-the-air transmission in favor of all-cable distribution should Aereo prevail.
Airbnb, in contrast, is fighting an effort by New York regulators to collect the names of Airbnb hosts who are breaking the law by renting out multiple properties for short periods. The company, which is now estimated to be worth $10 billion, is framing the dispute as a case of government scooping up more data than it needs for purposes that are vague. What the tussle is really about, of course, is whether the renting public actually needs protection from “unregulated hotels” and, even if true, why Airbnb’s efforts to make a market for DIY rentals is at all harmful. Continue reading Tech Tuesday: Litigation, Legislation and Regulatory Protectionism
Recently the United States federal antitrust enforcement agencies — the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division — issued a joint policy statement designed to “make it clear that they do not believe that antitrust is, or should be, a roadblock to legitimate cybersecurity information sharing.” The release made headlines globally, but the real story is that the risk of antitrust exposure for exchange of cyber risk information, even among direct competitors, was and remains almost non-existent.
That is because the U.S. antitrust laws (principally Section 1 of the Sherman Act) prohibit horizontal conspiracies and agreements among rivals, like price fixing, that harm competition. In some areas, information exchange can be competitively problematic, for instance where firms share non-public bidding or price data, or M&A transactions where the deal parties “gun jump” by acting as if they were already merged instead of continuing to compete independently. Yet as the policy statement confirmed, “cyber threat information typically is very technical in nature and very different from the sharing of competitively sensitive information such as current or future prices and output or business plans” and is thus “highly unlikely to lead to a reduction in competition.”
That’s hardly new. More than a decade ago DOJ said exactly the same thing in approving a proposal for cybersecurity information sharing in the electric industry, and Antitrust Division chief Bill Baer called the 2014 reaffirmation “an antitrust non-brainer.” But perceptions can have consequences, and some had voiced the fear that the exchange of IT security information among competitors could present a slippery slope, a forum for the kind of hard-core anticompetitive agreements the government loves to prosecute. At least that is what the White House, which called antitrust law “long a perceived barrier to effective cybersecurity,” reasoned in encouraging the FTC-DOJ clarification. So clearing away the underbrush of misinformation should help reassure business executives that companies which share technical cybersecurity information such as indicators, threat signatures and security practices, and avoid exchanging competitively sensitive information like business plans or prices, will simply not run afoul of the antitrust laws.
Continue reading Cybersecurity & Antitrust