U.S. Appeals Court for the Ninth Circuit Finds Per Se Treatment Inapplicable to Tying Arrangement in the Premium Cable Services Market
By Valerio Cosimo Romano
On 19 September 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit (“Appeals Court”) affirmed with a split decision the tossing by the U.S. District Court For the Western District of Oklahoma of a jury verdict in a suit alleging that a telecommunications company had illegally tied the rental of set-top boxes to its premium interactive cable services.
Parties and procedural history of the case
Cox Communications, Inc. (“Defendant”) operates as a broadband communications and entertainment company for residences and businesses in the United States. Its subscribers cannot access premium cable services unless they also rent a set-top box from Cox. A class of subscribers in Oklahoma City (“Plaintiffs”) sued Defendant under antitrust law, alleging that Defendant had illegally tied cable services to set-top-box rentals in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act, which prohibits illegal restraints of trade.
The jury found that Plaintiffs had proven the necessary elements to establish a tying arrangement. However, the District Court disagreed, and determined that Plaintiffs had offered insufficient evidence for a jury to find that Cox’s tying arrangement had foreclosed a substantial volume of commerce in Oklahoma City to other sellers or potential sellers of set-top boxes in the market for set- top boxes. The District Court also concluded that Plaintiffs had failed to show anticompetitive injury.
A tie exists when a seller exploits its control in one product market to force buyers in a second market into purchasing a tied product that the buyer either didn’t want or wanted to purchase elsewhere. Usually, courts apply a per se rule to tying claims, under which plaintiffs can prevail just by proving that a tie exists. In this case, there is no need for further market analysis.
The Supreme Court determined that tying two products together disrupted the natural functioning of the markets and violated antitrust law per se. However, the Supreme Court has declared that the per se rule for tying arrangements demands a showing that the tie creates a substantial potential for impact on competition.
On the basis of Supreme Court’s precedents, lower courts have defined the elements needed to prove per se tying claims. In particular, in the Tenth Circuit, a plaintiff must show that (1) two separate products are involved; (2) the sale or agreement to sell one product is conditioned on the purchase of the other; (3) the seller has sufficient economic power in the tying product market to enable it to restrain trade in the tied product market; and (4) a ‘not insubstantial’ amount of interstate commerce in the tied product is affected. If a plaintiff fails to prove an element, the court will not apply the per se rule to the tie, but then may choose to analyze the merits of the claim under the rule of reason.
According to the Appeals Court, legal precedents (Eastman Kodak, Microsoft) show that in some industries a per se treatment might be inappropriate.
In this regard, the Court cited a recent case from Second Circuit (Kaufman), concerning the same kind of tie by a different cable company. In Kaufman, the court thoroughly explained the reasons why the tying arrangement at issue didn’t trigger the application of the per se rule.
To start, the court explained that cable providers sell their subscribers the right to view certain contents. The contents’ producers, however, require the cable companies to prevent viewers from stealing their content. This problem is solved by set-top boxes, which enable cable providers to code their signals. However, providers do not share their codes with cable box manufacturers. Therefore, to be useful to a consumer, a cable box must be cable-provider specific.
After explaining the function of set-top boxes, the Second Circuit turned to the regulatory environment and the history of the cable industry’s use of set-top boxes. The court described the Federal Communication Commission’s (“FCC”) attempts to disaggregate set-top boxes from the delivery of premium cable, and stated that the FCC’s failure is at least partly attributable to shortcomings in the new technologies designed to make premium cable available without set-top boxes. The court also pointed out that one FCC regulation actually caps the price that cable providers can charge customers who rent set-top boxes. Under the regulation, cable companies must calculate the cost of making such set-top boxes functional and available for consumers, and must charge customers according to those costs, including only a reasonable profit in their leasing rates.
On this basis, the Second Circuit concluded that the plaintiffs’ factual allegations because they didn’t trigger the application of the per se tying rule.
In our case, the discussion relates to the fourth element (affection of a ‘not insubstantial’ amount of interstate commerce in the tied product). Plaintiffs claim that this element only requires consideration of the gross volume of commerce affected by the tie, and that they met this requirement presenting undisputed evidence that Cox obtained over $200 million in revenues from renting set-top boxes during the class period. On the other side, Defendant maintains that this element requires a showing that the tie actually foreclosed some amount of commerce, or some current or potential competitor, in the market for set-top boxes.
According to the Appeals Court, recent developments in tying law validate the district court’s order and support Cox’s interpretation of tying law’s foreclosure element. Based on the Supreme Court’s tying cases and other precedents, the Appeals Court therefore concluded that Plaintiffs had failed to show that the tie has a substantial potential to foreclose competition.
The Appeals Court’s reasoning is based on four points. First, Cox does not manufacture the set-top boxes that it rents to customers. Rather, it acts as an intermediary between the set-top-box manufacturers and the consumers that use them. This means that what it does with the boxes has little or no effect on competition between set-top-box manufacturers in the set-top-box market, as they must continue to innovate and compete with each other to maintain their status as the preferred manufacturer for as many cable companies as possible. Second, because set-top-box manufacturers choose not to sell set-top boxes at retail or directly to consumers, no rival in the tied market could be foreclosed by Cox’s tie, and therefore the alleged tie does not fall within the realm of contracts in restraint of trade or commerce proscribed by § 1 of the Sherman Act. Third, all cable companies rent set-top boxes to consumers. This suggests that tying set-top-box rentals to premium cable is simply more efficient than offering them separately. Fourth, the regulatory environment of the cable industry precludes the possibility that Cox could harm competition with its tie, as the regulatory price control on the tied product makes the plaintiffs’ tying claim implausible as a whole.
The Appeals Court also argued that it does not have to apply the rule of reason unless Plaintiffs also argued that the tie was unlawful under a rule of reason analysis. However, as Plaintiffs had expressly argued that tying arrangements must be analyzed under the per se rule, the court did not address whether Defendant’s tie would be illegal under a rule of reason analysis.
The Appeals Court therefore agreed with the District Court that Plaintiffs had failed to show that Defendant’s tying arrangement foreclosed a substantial volume of commerce in the tied-product market, and therefore the tie did not merit per se condemnation. Thus, the Appeals Court affirmed the district court’s order.