Will antitrust laws of the past century threaten the capitalist incentives that encourage important ideas in ours?
In early December, the Justice Department confirmed that it was investigating the pricing of e-books and the related activities of major publishers and online retailers, such as Amazon.com and Apple. As a print and digital author, participant in the publishing industry, and graduate of the Yale Law School, this naturally caught my eye. It also led me to start thinking about the assumptions that underlie existing antitrust laws.
Democracy is the basis of our form of government. Capitalism is the basis of our economic system. They are distinct systems, and (at least in theory) it’s possible to have one without the other. But will the antitrust rules developed to foster capitalism in the previous century inadvertently weaken our democracy in this century? In addition, do pre-digital era antitrust doctrines hinder the development of a fair, robust capitalism in our age? The current Justice Department investigation is a case study for examining these issues.
Lengthy, reasoned arguments (i.e. books) have historically played a central role in the marketplace of ideas. Important books have changed the way we look at our society, altered our political beliefs, changed foreign policy, and moved the nation in myriad ways. In the digital era, we benefit from many new forms of disseminating information, such as blogs and online news sources, all of which add to the marketplace of ideas. Nonetheless, none of these new sources of information has replaced the essential nature of a book (in physical or digital form): a lengthy effort, researched and written over a long period of time, which reflects the author’s most thoughtful analysis and reflections on the subject in question.
The research and creation of many significant, important works are funded by advances from book companies. The book company grants the money up front on the basis of a proposal, which allows the author to pursue the project while earning a living. Hypothetically, if publishers stopped offering advances, many important works would never be created. Authors (who are not always academics or paid foundation researchers with a guaranteed salary) simply could not afford to undertake the work. This capitalist, for-profit motive plays an important role in funding important contributions to the marketplace of ideas.
Today, the book industry is struggling to adapt to the digital transformation. At its core, digital information has a tough time establishing value in the eyes of the consumer. If the book industry declines, some authors will undoubtedly self-publish, and it’s possible new financing vehicles, for the equivalent of today’s advances, will evolve. In essence, a weaker book industry means our society loses a source of funding for important, time-consuming, and extensive research and analysis.
The Justice Department has not revealed the precise nature of the investigation. But it’s my understanding that when the Kindle was first released, Amazon.com priced e-books at less than the wholesale cost it was paying publishers. In effect, to boost Kindle sales and the idea of e-reading in general, Amazon was often taking a loss on sales.
A long-held tenant of antitrust law is that vertical price fixing (an agreement between the manufacturer and the retailer to sell a product at a specific price) is often illegal. These restrictions are why manufacturers offer products with a “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” (”the MSRP”). The manufacturer is not permitted to formally agree with retailers on the prices consumers pay for products. The retailer is free to set the price offered to consumers, thereby enabling discounts from the MSRP. (Note: In recent years, the Supreme Court has adopted a more flexible approach to the issue or vertical price fixing, adopting a “rule of reason” test, but it remains a central area of antitrust policy.) In addition, competitors cannot work together to restrain price competition in some way (horizontal price fixing).