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U.S. District Court Dismisses a Sherman Act Class Action Lawsuit Brought by Former and Current Bureau of Prison Inmates for lack of Antitrust Injury

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 28 February 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (hereinafter, “District Court”) dismissed  a putative class action lawsuit filed by current and released Bureau of Prison (“BOP”) inmates who purchased MP3 players and music or other audio files against Advanced Technologies Group LLC (“ATG”) and SanDisk Corporation (SanDisk”).

The plaintiffs were former and current BOP inmates. While incarcerated, plaintiffs purchased MP3 players on the BOP-operated facility’s “Commissary List” of items for sale, which included only those products that met special security features and had the ability to interface with BOP’s Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (“TRULINCS”). Indeed, in 2012 BOP and ATG signed a contract granting ATG the exclusive right to supply prison-restricted MP3 players and MP3 music to BOP inmates. In turn, ATG and SanDisk entered into an agreement for SanDisk to exclusively supply the prison-restricted MP3 players to ATG, pursuant to which only one brand and model of MP3 player was available for sale to inmates. The authorized device was not connected to the internet, but could only download approved music and audio books through TRULINCS. Inmates could purchase as many as 1,500 songs, which were stored on the MP3 player. When prisoners were released from BOP custody and they lost access to TRULINC, the MP3 players became inoperable and the prisoners lost access to the purchased audio files. Plaintiffs allege that this loss could only be avoided by buying a post-release MP3 player manufactured by SanDisk and sold by ATG. Also, according to plaintiffs, ATG will not restore any content to a third party player.

Plaintiffs therefore allege that defendants engaged in unlawful tying or a conspiracy to engage in unlawful tying in violation of §1 of the Sherman Act and in unlawful monopolization, attempted monopolization, or conspiracy to monopolize in violation of §2 of the Sherman Act. More specifically,  Plaintiffs assert that Defendants unlawfully tied the purchase of prison-restricted MP3 players to the purchase of a post-release MP3 player, and further allege that defendants’ conduct has exclusionary and anticompetitive effects with respect to the market for post-release MP3 players. Defendants argue that Plaintiffs lack antitrust standing.

First, The District Court recalled the relevant factors for the establishment of standing to bring an antitrust action, as articulated by the Supreme Court in Associated Gen. Contractors of Calif. and summarized by the Sixth Circuit in  Southhaven Land. These factors are: (i) the causal connection between the antitrust violation and the harm to the plaintiff and the intent of the defendant to cause that harm, with neither factor alone sufficient to confer standing; (ii) whether the plaintiff’s alleged injury is of the type for which the antitrust laws were intended to provide redress; (iii) the directness of the injury, which addresses the concerns that liberal application of standing principles might produce speculative claims; (iv) the existence of more direct victims of the alleged antitrust violations; and (v) the potential for duplicative recovery or complex apportionment of damages.

Second, the District Court held that, despite the fact that the factors have to be balanced, antitrust injury is a necessary component, and, therefore, where a plaintiff fails to establish an antitrust injury, the court must dismiss the complaint as a matter of law.

Third, the District Court ruled that an injury will not qualify as an antitrust injury unless it is attributable to an anticompetitive aspect of the practice under scrutiny. In this sense, adhering to the principles established in Standfacts Credit Servs., the District Court held that no cognizable antitrust injury could be identified where the alleged injury is a “byproduct of the regulatory scheme” or federal law rather than of the defendant’s business practices, and in this case, the injury stems from BOP policy rather than anticompetitive conduct by Defendants.

In light of the above, the District Court concluded that antitrust injury was lacking to support Plaintiff’s Sherman Act claims against defendants. Therefore, it granted motion to dismiss the defendants’ antitrust complaint as well as additional common law and state law claims.

Tenth Circuit holds IPRs defense available to rebut a refusal to deal antitrust claim

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 31 October 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit (the “Court of Appeals”) held that the invocation of IPRs is a presumptively valid business justification sufficient to rebut a refusal to deal claim.

The case involved a dispute between a software company and the developer of aviation terminal charts (which provide pilots with the information necessary to navigate and land at a specific airport). The developer holds copyrights for portions of its charts, which use a proprietary format. The parties negotiated and executed a license and cooperation agreement under which the developer would waive its standard licensing fee and grant the software company access to proprietary products that facilitate the integration of the developer’s terminal charts into third-party systems. In exchange, the software company would create a data management reader that works in conjunction with an e-book viewer. After the execution of the agreement, the software company registered with Apple as a software application developer and requested the necessary toolkit from the developer to develop an app. The developer did not provide the toolkit. Rather, it announced it had created its own app, offered to its customers at no additional cost beyond their terminal chart subscription fee.

The software development company sued the developer. The district court granted summary judgment for developer on the antitrust claims but denied summary judgment on the remaining claims for loss of profits, awarding more than $43 million in damages. The developer appealed, challenging only the district court’s ruling related to the loss of profits. The software company cross-appealed, challenging the dismissal of its antitrust claims, alleging a single anticompetitive conduct consisting in a refusal to deal, in violation of § 2 of the Sherman Act.

To determine whether a refusal to deal violates § 2, the Court of Appeals first looked at market power in the relevant market, in which the court assumed that the developer enjoyed monopoly power. Second, the Court of Appeals looked at the use of the product, and concluded that the assertion of IPRs is a presumptively rational business justification for a unilateral refusal to deal. In its legal reasoning, the Court of Appeals relied on the approach taken by both the First and Federal Circuits in Data General and Xerox, respectively. In Data General, the First Circuit held that while exclusionary conduct can be pursued by refusing to license a copyright, an author’s desire to exclude others from use of its copyrighted work is a presumptively valid business justification for any immediate harm to consumers. In Xerox, a Federal Circuit declined to examine the defendant’s motivation in asserting its right to exclude under the copyright laws, absent any evidence that the copyrights were obtained by unlawful means or used to gain monopoly power beyond what provided for by the law. Quoting Novell and Trinko, the Court of Appeals also recognized the existence of a limited exception, available only where the plaintiff can establish the parties had a preexisting, voluntary, and presumably profitable business relationship, and its discontinuation suggests a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve anti-competitive ends. On this last point, the Court of Appeals held that the software developer did not present any evidence.

Therefore, it concluded that the developer did not have an independent antitrust duty to share its intellectual property with the software company. Consequently, it reversed and vacated the jury’s award of lost profits, but affirmed the partial summary judgment on software company’s antitrust claims.

European Commission approves the acquisition of LinkedIn by Microsoft, subject to commitments

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 6 December 2016 the European Commission (the “Commission”) approved the acquisition of LinkedIn by Microsoft, conditional on compliance with a series of commitments.

Microsoft is an U.S. technology giant. LinkedIn is a company based in the US, operating a social network dedicated to professionals. The parties operate on complementary areas and have limited overlaps. In its investigation, the European Commission focused on professional social network services, customer relationship management software solutions, and online advertising services.

First, the Commission investigated whether, after the merger, Microsoft could have strengthened LinkedIn’s position by pre-installing and integrating the social network on its systems. The European watchdog came to the conclusion that such measures could significantly enhance LinkedIn’s visibility to the detriment of competitors. Second, the Commission investigated the area of customer relationship management software solutions and found that the networking service does not appear to be a must-have, and access to its database is not essential to compete on the market. The Commission therefore concluded that the transaction would not enable Microsoft to foreclose this market. Third, the Commission found that after the transaction a large amount of user data would still be available on the market. Thus, it concluded that there were few competition concerns arising from the combination of the parties’ online non-search service activities and data to be used for advertising purposes. Lastly, even though privacy concerns do not fall within the scope of EU competition law, the Commission analyzed the potential impact of data concentration on the market as a result of the merger. The European competition watchdog concluded that data privacy is an important parameter of competition between professional social networks, which could have been negatively affected by the transaction.

In order to address the competition concerns identified by the Commission, Microsoft committed to (i) ensuring that manufacturers and distributors would be free not to install the social network on Windows and allowing users to remove it from devices where pre-installed; (ii) allowing competing professional social network service providers to keep intact their current levels of interoperability with Microsoft’s products and (iii) granting them access to Microsoft’s proprietary application dedicated to software developers.

In light of these commitments, the Commission gave green light to the acquisition.

Second Circuit reverses a price-fixing cartel verdict against Chinese defendants on international comity grounds

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 20 September 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (the “Appeals court”) in New York reversed a federal district court judgment in an antitrust lawsuit against two Chinese companies accused of conspiring to fix the price and output of vitamin C sold to the United States.

In 2005, several vitamin C purchasers in the United States filed suit against two Chinese companies, alleging that the defendants and their co-conspirators had established an illegal cartel with the purpose and effect of fixing prices, controlling the supply of vitamin C  exported to the United States and worldwide, and inflating the prices of vitamin C in the United States and elsewhere. Defendants argued that they had acted in line with Chinese regulations on vitamin C export pricing which, in essence, requires coordination on prices and creation of a supply shortage, and that pursuant to the principle of international comity (i.e., the recognition granted by a nation within its territory to the legislative, executive, or judicial acts of another nation) the Court should have abstained from exercising jurisdiction in the case. The case went to trial, and in March 2013 a jury awarded plaintiffs approximately USD 147 million in damages and issued an injunction barring defendants from fixing the price or output of vitamin C. Defendants appealed the district court’s judgment.

Preliminarily, the appeals court determined whether Chinese law required defendants to engage in a conduct contrary to U.S. antitrust laws.

Defendants’ argument was supported by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, which filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Defendants’ motion to dismiss, confirming that it had compelled Defendants to sell the goods at industry wide-coordinated prices and export volumes, in order to assist China in its transition from a state run command economy to a market‐driven economy. Consistent with prior case law, the appeals court reaffirmed the principle that when a foreign government participates in U.S. court proceedings providing a reasonable evidentiary proffer on the construction and effect of its laws and regulations, the U.S. court is bound to defer to those statements. On that basis, the Court concluded that Chinese law required Defendants to engage in activities that amounted to U.S. antitrust violations.

Once ascertained the existence of a “true conflict” of laws between the applicable Chinese regulations and the relevant U.S. law, the Court determined whether it had to abstain from asserting jurisdiction on comity grounds.

In order to do so, it applied the Timberlane Lumber-Mannington Mills multi‐factor balancing test, which involves the analysis of: the degree of conflict with foreign law or policy; the nationality of the parties, locations or principal places of business of corporations; the relative importance of the alleged violation of conduct here as compared with conduct abroad; the extent to which enforcement by either state can be expected to achieve compliance, the availability of a remedy abroad and the pendency of litigation there; the existence of intent to harm or affect U.S. commerce and its foreseeability; the possible effect upon foreign relations if the court exercises jurisdiction and grants relief; whether a party will be placed in the position of being forced to perform an act illegal in either country or be under conflicting requirements by both countries; whether the court can make its order effective; whether an order for relief would be acceptable in this country if made by the foreign nation under similar circumstances, and lastly whether a treaty with the affected nations has addressed the issue.

Applying the test, the Court held that China’s interests outweigh the U.S. antitrust enforcement’s interests and thus that the factors counsel against exercising jurisdiction in the case. The Court further noted that Plaintiffs are not without recourse in respect to China’s export policies, since they can always resort to the executive branch, which would deal with the issue with foreign policy instruments.

Consequently, the Appeals court held that the district court had abused its discretion by not abstaining from asserting jurisdiction, and reversed the court’s order.

This judgment is an exercise of legal diplomacy aimed at balancing the enforcement of U.S. antitrust and the right to recourse for U.S. citizens on the one hand, and the recognition and deference to be granted to the legislative and governmental acts performed by sovereign states on the other hand. In fact, the complex intersection of legal, political, and economic effects stemming from the clash of legal systems mandates a prudential approach in deciding matters like this. However, sovereign self-limitation shall not be intended as a legitimization of a free riding behavior over foreign economies. Thus, its application shall be kept to a minimum in order not to impair the effectiveness of national antitrust laws.

Partial victory for BMI: Federal judge rules against full-work licensing requirement

By Martin Miernicki

On 16 September 2016, Judge Stanton issued an opinion interpreting the BMI Consent Decree. He concluded that the decree does not require BMI to issue “full-work” licenses.

 

Background

On 4 August 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) published a closing statement concluding its review of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees. It stated that said decrees prohibited ASCAP and BMI from issuing fractional licenses and required them to offer full-work licenses.[1]  Both ASCAP and BMI immediately announced to fight the opinion, the latter seeking a declaratory judgement, asking the “rate court” for its opinion.[2]

 

The court’s opinion

In its declaratory judgement, the court rejected the DOJ’s interpretation of the BMI Consent Decrees, ruling that “nothing in the Consent Decree gives support to the [Antitrust] Division’s view.” It held that the issue of full-work licensing remained unregulated by the Consent Decree; rather, this question should be analyzed under other applicable laws, like copyright or contract law. In conclusion, the court explained that the decree “neither bars fractional licensing nor requires full-work licensing.” The court furthermore distinguished the question at hand from its decision in BMI v. Pandora,[3] where it struck down attempts by major publishers to partially withdraw rights from BMI’s collective licensing regime.

 

The way forward

The court’s opinion is a clear success for BMI, but also for ASCAP, since it can be expected that Judge Stanton’s ruling will be influential in analogous questions regarding the ASCAP Consent Decree. However, this success is not final. BMI reported that the DOJ appealed the decision on 11 November 2016. It is hence up to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to clarify the meaning of the decree.

[1] Under a full-work license, a user obtains the right to publicly perform the entire work, even if not all co-owners are members of the organization issuing the license. Conversely, a fractional license only covers the rights held by the licensing organization.

[2] For more information on the background of the decision see Transatlantic Antitrust and IPR Developments Issue No. 3-4/2016.

[3] BMI v. Pandora, Inc., No. 13 Civ. 4037 (LLS), 2018 WL 6697788 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 19, 2013).

European Commission publishes a preliminary report on the e-commerce sector inquiry

By Nikolaos Theodorakis

On 6 May 2015, the European Commission launched a sector inquiry into e-commerce within the context of the Digital Single Market strategy, and in connection with Article 17 of Regulation 1/2003. In March 2016, the Commission published its initial findings on geo-blocking, which refers to business practices whereby retailers and service providers prevent the smooth access of consumers to the digital single market. In doing so, geo-blocking usually has three dimensions: (i) it prevents a consumer from accessing a website because of his IP address; (ii) it allows the consumer to add an item to his online shopping basket, but it cannot be shipped to his location and (iii) it redirects the consumer to another local website to complete his order.

As part of the sector inquiry, the Commission requested information from various actors in e-commerce throughout the EU, both related to online sales of consumer goods (e.g. electronics and clothing) as well as the online distribution of digital content. For that purpose, the Commission gathered evidence from nearly 1,800 companies operating in e-commerce and analyzed around 8,000 distribution contracts. The inquiry wished to look into the main market trends and gather evidence on potential barriers to competition linked to the growth of e-commerce.

E-commerce has been growing rapidly over the past years, and the EU is the largest e-commerce market in the world. As a result, any barrier in online trade may have severe consequences and distort healthy competition. In September 2016, the Commission published a preliminary report with certain findings. It identified issues arising from distribution agreements, which pertain to trade in goods, and licensing agreements, which pertain to trade in services.

 

Issues arising from distribution agreements

Distribution agreements may create geo-blocking restrictions, both from the manufacturers’ and the retailers’ side.

Manufacturers have adjusted to the increasing popularity of e-commerce by adopting a number of business practices that help them control the distribution of their products and the positioning in the market. These practices are not by default illegitimate, however under specific conditions, they can be.

For instance, manufacturers use selective distribution systems in which products can only be sold by pre-selected authorized sellers online. They also use contractual sales restrictions that may make cross-border shopping or online shopping more difficult and ultimately harm consumers since they prevent them from benefiting from greater choice of products and lower prices. The reasoning behind selective distribution systems is to control the quality of the product and safeguard brand consistency. This, nonetheless could classify as a vertical restraint and could be considered discordant with the principles of EU competition law.

Retailers use geo-blocking to restrict cross-border sales. Several retailers collect data on the location of their customers with a view to applying geo-blocking measures. This most commonly takes the form of refusal to deliver and refusal to accept payment from cards issued in other countries.

 

Issues arising from licensing agreements

With respect to digital content, the availability of licenses from the holders of copyrights in content is essential for digital content providers and a key determinant of competition in the market. The Preliminary Report finds that copyright licensing agreements can be complex and exclusive. The agreements provide for the territories, technologies and digital content that providers can use. As such, the Commission is expected to assess on a case-by-case basis whether certain licensing practices are unaccounted for and restrict competition.

In fact, one of the key determinants of competition in digital content markets is the scope of licensing agreements that determine online transmission. These agreements, between sellers of rights, use complicated definitions to define the reach of the service, creating differences in technological, temporal and territorial level. These contractual restrictions are practically the norm, whereas access to exclusive content increases the attractiveness of the offer of digital content providers.

A striking 70% of digital content providers restrict access to their digital content for users from other EU Member States. Further, the 60% of digital content providers are contractually required by rightsholders to geo-block. This practice is more prevalent in agreements for films, sports and TV series. Licensing agreements enable rightsholders to monitor that content providers comply with territorial restrictions, otherwise they ask for compensation. These agreements usually have a very long duration and they may make it more difficult for new online business services to emerge and try to win a stake in the market.

Additional questions arise when online rights are sold exclusively on a per Member State basis, or bundled with rights in other transmission technologies and then are not used. This might signal a semi perfect price discrimination policy depending on how much money each Member State is willing to pay, and a consequent further balkanization of the digital single market.

 

Next Steps

After publishing the preliminary report, the Commission is soliciting views and comments of interested stakeholders until 18 November 2016. The final report of the sector inquiry is expected in the first quarter of 2017. As a follow-up to the sector inquiry, the Commission may further explore if certain practices are compatibility with the EU competition rules and launch investigations against specific distributors and/or resellers on matters of both goods and digital content.

Finally, the results of the sector inquiry provide useful information for the debate on Commission initiatives relating to copyright and the proposed geo-blocking regulation.

Gun-jumping: the French Competition Authority issues highest fine ever for premature engagement in post-M&A integration

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 8 November 2016 the French Competition Authority (FCA) imposed a whopping EUR 80 million fine on Altice Luxembourg and its subsidiary SFR Group for implementing two notified transactions before obtaining appropriate merger clearance.

In France, the effective implementation of a concentration is suspended until clearance by the FCA. Pending approval, the concerned parties must behave as competitors and not act as a single entity. Violation of the rule triggers the application of  Section II of Article L. 430-8 of the Commercial Code, which provides for a fine of up to the 5 per cent of the notifying parties’ turnover.

In 2014, Altice and its subsidiary Numbericable had notified the Authority about two distinct concentrations: the acquisition of SFR and that of OTL. Both transactions were approved. However, in 2015 the Authority started suspecting an early implementation of the two transactions and raided the companies’ premises. Evidence showed that the behavior implemented by Altice led to the exercise of decisive influence on its targets and allowed the company to access strategic information before getting the green light from FCA.

More specifically, Altice had repeatedly validated a number of SFR’s strategic decisions such as pricing and promotional policy, the participation in a tender, the renegotiation of a contract and the joint preparation of an offer. Further, the two companies had exchanged a large amount of strategic information concerning performances and forecasts at a very senior level.

In the second case, Altice had been involved in the OTL’s operational management, had set up a mechanism which allowed access to commercially sensitive information, and had allowed the participation of OTL’s CEO in the group’s decision-making and periodic reporting of commercial performance.

In the past, the FCA had already fined companies for failing to notify or for breach of commitments, but this is the first case in which it ruled on the early implementation of a merger prior to authorization (so called gun-jumping). The fine is also the highest ever imposed for a gun-jumping offence, and is four times higher than the highest sanction registered in Europe to date. According to the FCA, the high amount of fine is justified by the importance of the acquisitions in terms of purchase price and the impact on the telecommunications industry, the breadth, duration, reiteration and deliberate nature of the conduct. Remarkably, the FCA added that in setting the amount of the sanction it had taken account of the fact that the companies had not questioned the circumstances behind the fine and their legal characterization.

This sanction confirms an increased global attention by competition agencies in challenging the practice of gun-jumping. It also denotes a shift in the enforcement leadership on the matter from U.S. to European competition authorities. On a more practical ground, the judgment contributes to shedding legal certainty on the behavior to be avoided in the no man’s land between antitrust notification and clearance. Also, it opens up the debate on how to immediately achieve all the synergies expected from M&A transactions without violating competition law.