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Antitrust News is a new feature at The Antitrust Attorney Blog. We will periodically report on and address new developments in the antitrust world, from FTC or DOJ guidance to important court decisions to relevant legislative developments to worldwide antitrust issues.

Although some of our prior articles involve antitrust developments, most of these posts consist of content that is less timely and more evergreen. Our intent is to help our readers by describing Antitrust News through the filter of our antitrust expertise.

On November 16, 2017 in Washington, DC, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Donald G. Kempf, Jr. made news about antitrust merger review at the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Fall Forum.

Kempf said—simply—that the DOJ will try to shorten the time it takes it to review mergers for antitrust and competition issues. In 2011, the average merger took just over 7 months to review. In 2016, the review time increased to 11.6 months on average.

That is unacceptable. Companies that want to merge should not have to wait almost full year to do so. A lot can happen in a year, particularly now where technology and low entry barriers mean that entire markets often change in a short period of time.

How did the excess delays happen?

To explain, let’s back up and explain—briefly—how an antitrust merger review works:

The merging parties begin by completing what is called a Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) filing. Either the DOJ or FTC has 30 days to decide whether to issue what is called a second request. If one of the antitrust agencies thinks that there could be genuine competition issues for the merger, they may issue this second request, which opens up a heavy set of fact-finding, including document production.

At some point, the antitrust agencies may either approve the merger, reach an agreement with the parties to approve the merger with certain requirements (like selling assets) or (in the case of the DOJ) to seek a preliminary injunction stopping the merger.

According to Kempf, over time the second request period increased in scope and complexity and the preliminary injunction hearings became mini-trials. Indeed, they often have the same effect as a trial on the merger because if the DOJ wins, the parties often abandon the merger. If the DOJ loses, it often halts the challenge.

Kempf went on to articulate why shortening merger review time is so important. His best line was that “delaying competitive mergers is anticompetitive, and that’s not the business the Antitrust Division wants to be in. Just the opposite.”

He offered five suggestions to shorten antitrust merger reviews: Continue reading →

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Author: Luis Blanquez

As a US company doing business internationally, you might wonder what are the legal rules and procedures currently in place in the European Union to file an antitrust complaint.

First, you should understand that The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) is based on the existence of a single market with free movement of goods and services throughout the European Union.  The antitrust rules included in the TFEU, such as those against anti-competitive agreements, abuses of dominant position, certain problematic mergers and state aid, are essential to achieve that free movement.

Second, an important distinction from US antitrust law is that EU antitrust law is mainly enforced by public authorities: by the European Commission at EU level, and by national competition authorities (NCAs) at national level.

Third, EU antitrust law is also enforced—to a lesser extent—through ordinary litigation before the appropriate national courts of each Member State.

Last but not least, we shouldn’t forget that each Member State within the EU has also its own domestic antitrust rules, often mirroring EU rules, but sometimes with important procedural and substantive differences.

How the different antitrust laws are applied in the EU between NCAs, the European Commission and national courts, deserves an independent post on its own.  For now, however, just keep in mind that as a plaintiff, you could also file an antitrust complaint in the EU before a national court.

In the meantime, if you want to know more about this issue, please see: (i) Council Regulation (EC) No 1/2003 on the implementation of the rules on competition, (ii) Commission Notice on the co-operation between the Commission and the courts of the EU Member States in the application of Articles 81 and 82 EC (See more information here), and (iii) Notice on Cooperation within the network of competition authorities in the European Competition Network (See more information here).

Let’s return to our discussion on the application of EU antitrust rules by the European Commission.  In the European Union, the Directorate General for Competition of the European Commission (“the Commission”), together with NCAs, directly enforces EU competition rules, Articles 101-109 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.  The two most important articles, for the purpose of this post, are articles 101 and 102 TFEU.

Article 101 of the Treaty prohibits agreements between two or more independent market operators that restrict competition.  It covers: (i) horizontal agreements between actual or potential competitors operating at the same level of the supply chain; (ii) and vertical agreements, between firms operating at different levels, such as an agreement between a manufacturer and its distributor.

Article 102 of the Treaty prohibits dominant firms from abusing that position, for example, by charging unfair prices, by limiting production, or by refusing to innovate to the prejudice of consumers.

HOW DOES AN ANTITRUST CASE START IN THE EU?

  • The investigation

For Article 101 TFEU cases, the Commission and NCAs have important investigative powers under Regulation 1/2003.

The initiation of a Commission investigation might be the result of: (i) the Commission (or an NCA) launching an inquiry of its own initiative; (ii) a third party with information who approaches the Commission, such as a competitor or customer, (iii) a party to a cartel (or anti-competitive agreement) acting as a whistleblower under the existing leniency program, or (iv) when an NCA refers a case with a cross border element to the Commission through the ECN network.

Under Article 102, a case can originate either upon receipt of a complaint or through the opening of an investigation at the commission’s initiative.

Continue reading →

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We are ecstatic that Steve Levitsky agreed to join us in New York. It isn’t every day that an antitrust attorney of Steve’s caliber becomes available, let alone fits so perfectly into a law firm’s approach, culture, and plans. But that is the happy situation in which we find ourselves.

You can read our press release about the move here. And you can read Steve Levitsky’s impressive biography here.

As you can tell, I am very excited about this next chapter in Bona Law’s history. As you can see, we now have two offices: La Jolla, California and New York, New York.

Bona Law is an antitrust boutique firm. Our client base has been worldwide for quite some time and we have had cases and other matters all over the country. So the move to add a New York office doesn’t change our focus: We have always been a national antitrust boutique firm.

But I think opening our New York office signals to the marketplace more directly that we are a national law firm that competes with biglaw for antitrust. And adding Steve to our team—with his decades of big firm antitrust experience and worldwide client base—confirms our place.

Steve Levitsky’s antitrust experience includes the big three of litigation, antitrust counseling, and antitrust merger work. But what is even more exciting for us is that Steve is particularly known for his antitrust merger expertise, which is an area in which I have much less experience.

Over the last few years, I have heard repeatedly that many companies that have an HSR filing or other antitrust merger issues are frustrated that they don’t options other than big law firms. Well, now they do: Steve has managed the antitrust side of countless complex merger transactions, domestic and global—many of them worth over $10 billion.

So if you are a corporate attorney or business with antitrust merger or acquisition issues, you should contact Steve.

Steve has such an impressive background that he would, frankly, fit in at any law firm. He would substantially raise the average quality of the attorneys no matter where he would have gone. Our traditional press release and website article goes into his background, so I am not going to repeat it here.

I enjoy writing articles for The Antitrust Attorney Blog because it allows greater flexibility in what I tell you. I try to offer some of the informal truths relating to antitrust and law practice that, although vitally important, are not usually discussed so straightforwardly.

So, obviously, adding Steve to our team is a huge deal because he is a great lawyer. But my excitement about this move goes well beyond that obvious point.

Continue reading →

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The short answer to the statute-of-limitations question is that an antitrust action must be commenced “within four years after the cause of action accrued.” (15 U.S.C. § 15b). And the antitrust cause of action accrues when the defendant acts in violation of the antitrust laws and injures plaintiff.

But it isn’t always this simple. Sometimes the statute of limitations doesn’t start running right away, even when the antitrust defendant actually injures the plaintiff. Unlike the victim of a battery—maybe a punch to the face—a victim of the antitrust laws doesn’t always know that he or she or it (i.e. a corporation) suffered injury from an anticompetitive act.

This is called the discovery rule and it isn’t unique to antitrust. There are other types of claims in which the victim doesn’t even know about the injury. Fraud is a good example. The victim may not know that he or she has been swindled. When they find out about the fraud, the statute of limitations may have passed. But if the cause of action doesn’t accrue until discovery, the victim will still have the standard time period to file a lawsuit.

The discovery rule could also apply to a medical malpractice case—the sort of case we don’t handle. Like a fraud injury, the victim may be walking around totally oblivious to an injury. Maybe during a surgery the doctor’s Fitbit Blaze watch fell off and landed in the patient? The doctor, none the wiser because he or she was concentrating so hard, simply didn’t notice. Presumably a Fitbit left in the body causes some sort of medical injury, so when the patient/victim finds out about it, the cause of action begins to accrue. Of course, I don’t know if Fitbits are often left in bodies because we don’t do medical malpractice work.

Not all courts apply the discovery rule in antitrust cases: Check out this article by Michael Christian and Eric Buetzow if you have a Law360 subscription. Of course, even if a Court applies the injury rule to the exclusion of the discovery rule (and they sometimes do), a plaintiff could still invoke fraudulent concealment to postpone accrual of many antitrust claims.

You will likely see a fraudulent concealment count in any case involving a long-lasting conspiracy. That is because the nature of a conspiracy—in most cases—is to hide the anticompetitive conduct. Most antitrust claims where a discovery rule would be useful are ones in which a plaintiff could likely invoke fraudulent concealment.

Fraudulent concealment means that the defendants are purposely trying to hide their bad conduct, with an intent to deceive the victims.

So, for example, if there are a group of competitors that are engaged in a price-fixing conspiracy and they also cover up the conspiracy, it is likely that a Court will find that the conspirators committed a fraudulent concealment such that the antitrust cause of action doesn’t begin to accrue until the victim discovers the conspiracy.

You will see claims of fraudulent concealment in many antitrust complaints. Of course, if you are an antitrust plaintiff, you may have to show that you exercised diligence during the concealment period.

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As a regular reader of The Antitrust Attorney Blog, you understand that setting prices or allocating markets with your competitor is a terrible idea. Doing so is likely to lead to civil litigation and perhaps even criminal penalties.

Price fixing and market allocation agreements are per se antitrust violations. That means they are the worst of the worst of anticompetitive conduct.

There is, however, a limited circumstance in which what would normally be a per se antitrust violation is instead treated by Courts and government antitrust agencies under the rule of reason:

An ancillary restraint.

You shouldn’t put ancillary restraints in your agreements without the help of an antitrust lawyer. That would be like juggling knives that are on fire. You might be able to do it, but if you make a mistake, you won’t like the results.

What is an Ancillary Restraint?

This isn’t an easy question to answer and, in fact, if you can answer it, you will often know whether your restraint will survive antitrust scrutiny.

Let’s back up a little bit.

In a typical situation, if two competitors agree to fix prices or to split a market (perhaps they will agree to limit their competition for each other’s customers), they commit what is called a per se antitrust violation. What that means is that this type of restraint is so consistently anticompetitive that courts won’t even examine the circumstances—it is per se illegal.

Obviously you should avoid committing per se antitrust violations, unless, of course, you want to experience an antitrust blizzard.

Without further context, such a restraint is often called a naked restraint of trade. That doesn’t mean that the cartel meets at a nudist colony; it means that it is an anticompetitive agreement with nothing surrounding it. Such agreements are almost always done to gain greater profits from the restraint itself.

So what does a non-naked restraint of trade look like? Interesting question. I will answer it, but you have to read through most of this article.

Sometimes two or more parties, even competitors, will put together a joint venture or collaboration that creates what antitrust lawyers often call efficiency. You might normally think of efficiency as running more smoothly or at the same or better result with fewer resources.

But when antitrust attorneys use the term “efficiency” or “efficiency enhancing,” they often mean that the venture or combination will create economic value for the marketplace as a whole that wouldn’t exist but for the agreement. The term often comes up in the merger context, as an antitrust analysis of a merger will examine whether the benefits through efficiency and more exceed any potential anticompetitive harm.

An Ancillary Restraint Example

Sometimes it is easier to understand with an example: Let’s say you have a company called Research that is full of people with PhDs that spend all of their days trying to figure out how to make the world a better place. If someone at Research comes up with a good idea, the company will sometimes manufacture and sell the finished product itself.

Continue reading →

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Author: Aaron Gott

Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Benjamin Sasse recently proposed a bill to enact the Restoring Board Immunity Act of 2017, which would give state licensing boards antitrust immunity that they may not otherwise be entitled to under the state-action immunity doctrine. The bill provides this immunity if the states fulfill some conditions: they must make efforts to reform their occupational licensing schemes and either provide active supervision of boards by creating an office to oversee them or provide for a specific form of judicial review of licensing board actions.

While the bill seeks to make some promising advancements to curtail overbearing state occupational regulation, it misses the mark in several ways.

As a Bona Law attorney, I regularly help clients suffering the wrath of professional licensing boards. It is very rewarding work, but it is also difficult work because the entire system—from state executive branches to federal courts—overwhelmingly defers to these licensing boards. The boards are confident in their ability to do whatever they want because they’ve enjoyed extreme deference in constitutional cases since the progressive era.

Our most effective tool is the threat of antitrust litigation—a tool that has only recently been used. First I’ll explain how all of this works so that you can better understand why this bill is a bad idea.

How Licensing Boards Work

Most licensing boards are created by some enabling statute that was pushed through the state legislature after a bunch of competitors in the same industry got together and formed a powerful lobby. Nine times out of ten, a professional licensing board justifies its existence and its conduct with vague and unsupported claims that public welfare is at stake. The enabling legislation often provides the governor the authority to appoint members of the profession, and perhaps one or two “public” members (persons who are not part of the profession), to serve on the licensing board.

Invariably, the board members who also compete in the market eventually use their power on the board to benefit their own pecuniary interests:

Licensing Requirements. . Organizations like the Institute for Justice have analyzed state-by-state data and published significant literature about occupational overregulation. The bill appears most focused on licensing requirements. Antitrust litigation typically does not focus on the licensing requirements category of restraints because they are easy to pretextually justify, because the lobbying effort is protected by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, and because they primarily affect new entrants (who are unlikely to organize a collective resistance, let alone the resources to finance antitrust litigation).

This raises an important question: if most antitrust litigation against boards does not relate to the occupational licensing reforms sought by the bill, why are we considering a broad antitrust exemption as the carrot for states to implement the reforms?

Expanding the Scope of Practice. Where boards prevent competitors who are not licensees within their jurisdiction from competing with them. A seminal example is what occurred in North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC: the North Carolina dental board sent cease-and-desist letters to nondentist teeth whiteners asserting that teeth whitening was the practice of dentistry. Teeth whitening is not mentioned in the North Carolina statutes governing dentistry, but the board asserted it anyway because the dental board members and their professional trade group friends were losing profits to disruptive nondentist competitors who offered lower prices to consumers.

Similarly, the California Veterinary Medicine Board recently sent cease-and-desist letters to animal chiropractors, claiming that performing chiropractic adjustments on animals is the practice of veterinary medicine (even though performing human chiropractic adjustments is not the practice of human medicine).

Setting the Rules of Competition. Where boards prevent competitors who are licensees within their jurisdiction from competing in ways they don’t like. For example, some state funeral director boards have imposed or considered imposing substantial infrastructural requirements on their licensees (such as having an embalming room) with the ultimate goal of restricting the geographic scope of competition.

Side note: state funeral director boards have been among the worst culprits of blatant anticompetitive activity, even going so far as enacting rules to prevent monks who handcraft caskets from competing in the lucrative market for casket sales.

As you can see, boards have substantial power and states don’t seem to care that they regularly abuse it. So at first glance, a bill that incentivizes states to reassess their occupational licensing schemes with a critical eye is probably a good thing, right? If that were what it did, and it didn’t attempt to foreclose otherwise legitimate antitrust claims through the state action doctrine, then it wouldn’t be so objectionable.

The Bill

You can read the text of the bill here, but it works like this: all licensing boards and their members are not subject to the Sherman Act if the following conditions are met:

  1. The actions of the board/member are authorized by a nonfrivolous interpretation of the occupational licensing laws of the state.
  2. The state adopts a policy of using less restrictive alternatives to occupational licensing;
  3. The state either:
    1. Enacts legislation providing for active supervision of the actions of an occupational licensing board, which requires creating a central office to oversee all licensing boards; or
    2. Enacts legislation providing for judicial review of occupational licensing laws.

The bill has a savings clause that states the immunity only applies to “personal qualifications required to engage in or practice a lawful occupation.” As you will see below, this clause could be very important, depending on how courts would construe it.

Continue reading →

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Bona Law filed an antitrust lawsuit on behalf of our client in the Northern District of Georgia alleging antitrust violations in the cement and ready mix concrete markets. More on that later.

But first I am going to tell you a fictional story about your nine-year-old son and his first entrepreneurial endeavor. If you don’t want to hear about your son, you can skip to the next section, about Bona Law’s new case.

The Lemonade Stand

You don’t have a nine-year-old son? Well … you do for this story. Congratulations, it’s a boy!

As you know, your son’s name is Johnny. You call him Little Johnny, but he is growing so fast, you are not sure how much longer the “Little” will last. But you treasure these times because they grow up so quickly.

And speaking of growing up quickly, Johnny sure is maturing. You tried to get him to clean-up around the house for an allowance, but he turned you down. He said he doesn’t want to be an employee and taking a job with you will just lead him into the rat race. Why would he want to do that?

Instead, Johnny says, he wants to start his own business. Ownership is where the money is, he says. Johnny wants to build cash flow, so he can just skip the rat race. Smart kid.

Okay, you say, “why don’t you start a lemonade stand?”

Johnny is excited. This is his first business—his first taste of Capitalism!

“Yes, I’ll build the best lemonade stand in the neighborhood, will serve the best tasting lemonade, and will be very careful with my costs, so I can charge a lower price and sell the most lemonade.”

Apparently Johnny has been paying attention to the business podcasts you have been listening to in the car.

As you know, you just moved to a wonderful neighborhood in the San Diego area. After years on the east coast, dealing with the harsh weather and sometimes harsh people, you are excited that you are now in paradise. The weather is incredible all year here and the constant sunshine puts you in a great mood.

Of course, it is tough to move to a new area, especially for kids. Johnny is excited, but a little nervous. He doesn’t know many kids in the neighborhood yet, and doesn’t start school until the fall—it is still July.

You and he have both noticed, however, that the neighborhood has a few lemonade stands—and many thirsty neighbors—so this might be a good way for him to make some friends and get to know the neighborhood.

You help Johnny build a stand, but to his credit he does most of the work—his enthusiasm for the venture has produced a work ethic in him you’ve never seen. You also admire his efforts to plan out his purchase of supplies, opting for Costco so he can buy what he needs in bulk at a low cost per glass (as he explained to you).

Johnny now has everything ready for his business: a stand with an attractive sign, cups, a money box, raw materials to make lemonade, a cooler, a couple chairs for him and his friend (or you, when you want to stop by), and, most importantly, the joy of ownership from starting his own business. You’ve never seen him so happy.

You drive around the neighborhood with him and discover that other kids seem to be selling lemonade at $7 per glass, which seems a little high, but it is a wealthy neighborhood, so perhaps that is the market price? It has been a warm, surprisingly humid summer in San Diego. You discuss with Johnny how that weather pattern increases demand. Of course, it did seem odd to you that everyone was selling lemonade at exactly $7 per glass, but you dismiss it.

Continue reading →

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In the market, there are many ways to buy and sell products or services.

For example, if you want to purchase some coconut milk—my favorite kind of milk—you can walk into a grocery store, go to the milk section, examine the prices of the different brands, and if one of them is acceptable to you, carry that milk to the register and pay the listed price.

Similarly, if you want to purchase a Fitbit Blaze, you find the Fitbit manufacturer’s product in a store or online and pay the listed price. Oftentimes products like this, from a specific manufacturer, are the same price wherever you look because of resale price maintenance or a Colgate policy (to be clear, I am not aware of whether Fitbit has any such program or policy). But these vertical price arrangements are not the subject of this article.

Another approach—and the true subject of this article—is to accept bids to purchase a product or service. Governments often send out what are called Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to fulfill the joint goals of obtaining the best combination of price and service/product and to minimize favoritism (which doesn’t always work).

But private companies and individuals might also request bids. Have you ever renovated your house and sought multiple bids from contractors? If so, that is what we are talking about. If you’ve done this as a real-estate investor, you should read our real-estate blog too.

What is Bid-Rigging?

Let’s say you are a bidder and you know that two other companies are also bidding to supply tablets and related services to a business that provides its employees with tablets. The bids are blind, which means you don’t know what the other companies will bid.

You will likely calculate your own costs, add some profit margin, try to guess what the other companies will bid, then bid the best combination of price, product, and services that you can so the buyer picks your company.

This approach puts the buyer in a good position because each of the bidders doesn’t know what the others will bid, so each potential seller is motivated to put together the best offer they can. The buyer can then pick which one it likes best.

But instead of bidding blind, what if you met ahead of time with the other two bidding companies and talked about what you were going to bid? You could, in fact, decide among the three of you which one of you will win this bid, agreeing to allow the others to win bids with other companies. In doing this, you will save a lot of money.

The reason is that you don’t have to put forth your best offer—you just have to bid something that the buyer will take if it is the best of the three bids. You can arrange among the three bidders for the other two bidders to either not bid (which may arouse suspicion) or you could arrange for them to bid a much worse package, so your package looks the best. The three bidders can then rotate this arrangement for other requests for proposals. Or you offer each other subcontracts from the “winner.”

If you did this, you’d save a lot of money, in the short run.

Of course, in the medium and long run, you might be in jail and find yourself on the wrong side of civil antitrust litigation.

This is what is called bid-rigging. It is one of the most severe antitrust violations—so much so that the courts have designated it a per se antitrust violation.

Bid rigging is also a criminal antitrust violation that can lead to jail time. Bid-rigging conduct also leads to civil antitrust litigation. Many years ago, when I was still with DLA Piper, I spent a lot of time on a case that included bid-rigging allegations in the insurance and insurance brokerage industries called In re Insurance Brokerage Antitrust Litigation.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

In our prior article, we discussed the European Commission’s final report of its study of the EU’s e-commerce market for consumer goods and digital content.

In this article we describe EU investigations and enforcement actions that arose from the EC’s final e-commerce market study. While the final report itself offers companies doing business in the EU helpful guidance, the Commission’s actual conduct is perhaps an even better indicator of how the EC will implement what it learned.

Since the European Commission published its Final Report, it has opened investigation of about 20 companies.

Below is a summary of the relevant cases that the EC recently opened. We expect additional cases in the future in this area, both at EU and national level.

Geo-blocking cases

Video Games

On February 2, 2017, the EC opened an investigation to analyze bilateral agreements between Valve Corporation, owner of the Steam game distribution platform, and five PC video game publishers:  Bandai Namco, Capcom, Focus Home, Koch Media and ZeniMax.

This investigation concerns geo-blocking practices, where companies prevent consumers from purchasing digital content, in this case PC video games, because of the consumer’s location or country of residence.  After the purchase of certain PC video games, users need to confirm that their copy of the game is not pirated to be able to play it.  This is done with an activation key.

The investigation focuses on whether such agreements require the use of activation keys for the purpose of geo-blocking.

Clothing Company, Guess

On June 6, 2017, the EC opened an investigation against clothing manufacturer Guess.  The EC is analyzing whether Guess’s distribution agreements impose cross-border sales restrictions on (i) retailers making online sales to consumers in other Member States, (ii) or wholesalers, selling to retailers in other Member States.

Interestingly, as a result, other clothing manufacturers such as Mango, Oysho and Pull&Bear have now started to review and revise their distribution agreements.  Other companies, such as coffee machine manufacturer De Longhi, and photo equipment manufacturer Manfrotto, are doing the same (See here).

Hotel Pricing Discrimination

On February 2, 2017, the EC opened another investigation into hotel accommodation agreements between the largest European tour operators on the one hand: Kuoni, REWE, Thomas Cook and TUI, and Meliá Hotels on the other hand.

The EC encourages hotels to develop and introduce innovative pricing mechanisms to maximize room usage.  But the EC is concerned that these agreements may contain clauses that discriminate among customers based on their nationality or country of residence.  As a result, customers may not be able to see the full hotel availability, or book hotel rooms at the best prices, simply because of the consumer’s nationality or place of residence.

Licensed Merchandising Products

On June 14, 2017, the EC opened more investigations into the licensing and distribution practices of Nike, Sanrio and Universal studios.  These three companies license intellectual property rights to manufacturers of merchandising products such as the Fútbol Club Barcelona, Hello Kitty and Minions merchandise, respectively.

The EC is concerned that these companies, in their role as licensors of rights for merchandising products, may have restricted the ability of their licensees to sell licensed merchandise cross-border and online.

Resale Price Maintenance cases

Consumer electronics manufacturers

The EC has opened another investigation against Asus, Denon & Marantz, Philips and Pioneer.  In this case, the EC is concerned that the companies involved might be restricting the ability of online retailers to set their own prices for widely used consumer electronics products such as household appliances, notebooks and hi-fi products.

This is the first resale price maintenance case that the EC has initiated in a long time.  Instead, the Member States themselves have scrutinized resale price maintenance at national level during the last decade.

Germany, for example, has recently published a new guidance note on resale price maintenance. The Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) in the UK also published additional guidance on these types of pricing agreements in the form of an open letter, a film, a 60-second summary, and  case studies.

Indeed, the CMA recently fined National Lighting Company (NLC), a light fittings supplier, £2.7 million for restricting online prices. They also sent out warning letters to others in the industry.  In 2016, the CMA also fined two other online companies for resale price maintenance practices: Ultra Finishing Limited (“Ultra”) in the Bathroom fittings sector and ITW Limited in the commercial refrigeration sector.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

  1. BACKGROUND

Over the past two years, the European Commission (“EC”) has been scrutinizing the e-commerce market of consumer goods and digital content in the European Union.  This is a key step on the Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy to improve access to digital goods and services.

Such strategy includes legislation to promote cross border e-commerce through the following:

In May 2015, the EC started in parallel its Sector Inquiry to identify possible competition concerns affecting European e-commerce markets.  Its main purpose was to gather information on companies’ conduct and barriers to cross-border online trade, looking at online sales of consumer goods and digital content.  In September 2016, the EC published a report with its preliminary findings, together with a Staff Working Document.

Finally, in May 2017, the EC issued its Final Report.

You can read our follow-up article to this one about ongoing EC enforcement actions arising out of the E-Commerce Report.

You might also enjoy our articles on EU dominance abuse and antitrust compliance programs in the US and EU.

  1. RELEVANT FINDINGS

The EC outlines in the Final Report what it considers as the key issues in the field of e-commerce.  It acknowledges the changing characteristics and fast-growing tendency of a sector with an increasing economic role in today’s economy. It further identifies business practices and barriers that could restrict competition and limit consumer choice.

The EC reviewed more than 2,600 agreements concerning the distribution of goods in the EU, and received more than 6,800 licensing agreements from digital content providers and rights holders.  The main findings in the Final Report differentiate between consumer goods and digital content.

(A) CONSUMER GOODS

Contractual Restrictions on Cross-Border Sales: Geo-Blocking

The Sector Inquiry identifies contractual restrictions between operators in the online market that the EC believes could cause problems.  Unilateral decisions by non-dominant firms, however, fall outside the scope of EU competition law.

But before telling you which contractual restrictions are problematic, let me explain first what the term “geo-blocking” means.  Basically, it refers to practices that prevent cross-border sales in the EU.  These include the following:

  • Blocking access to websites by users located in another Member State—for example when a customer located in Madrid tries to acquire a product via a French website, and is prevented from doing so because the website has been blocked due to its Spanish IP address;
  • Automatic re-routing of a customer to another website of the same or a different service provider—for example when a customer located in Madrid trying to access a French website is directly re-routed to the company’s Spanish website; or
  • Payment refusals based on the place of residence of the customer—for example when the payment to the French website is refused because the credit card used is linked to an address in Spain, or the delivery to Spain is denied based on the customer’s residence.

So back to the relevant contractual restrictions now:  The EC is concerned about how retailers face contractual restrictions from suppliers, which prevent such cross-border selling on-line.

These questioned agreements are ones that (i) are not covered by the EC “safe harbor” under the Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (“VBER”) – this is if parties to the agreements have market shares above 30%, or there are hardcore restraints involved, (ii) preventing cross-border sales between Member States in distribution agreements, may infringe EU Competition rules.

Restrictions on the use of online marketplaces

An online marketplace is a website that facilitates shopping from different sources, such as Amazon or eBay.

An absolute ban on online selling is considered a hard-core restriction under EU law.  There is, however, an important ongoing debate in Europe as to whether an absolute ban on selling via marketplaces is contrary to EU rules.

In Germany, the Bundeskartellamt issued an infringement decision against Asics on its ban to sell via online marketplaces. In April 2017, the Dusseldorf Regional Higher Court found that only the price comparison tool restrictions involved in the case were anticompetitive.

At EU level there are currently two preliminary rulings pending.  One the Coty case, where the high EU court has been asked to analyze the restrictions imposed on a selective distribution agreement by manufacturer Coty on one of its authorized distributors to sell products via third party online platforms. The second one is the Samsung and Amazon case, concerning a ban on resale outside a selective distribution network and on a marketplace, by means of online offers on several websites operating in various Member States.

In its Final Report, the EC does not consider marketplace selling bans as hardcore restraints.  It may, however, still scrutinize them on a case by case basis, if parties to the agreements have market shares above 30%, or there are hardcore restraints involved, according to the VBER.

Selective distribution agreements: Requirements for brick-and- mortar shops

Contractual requirements to operate at least one brick-and-mortar shop under a selective distribution agreement are compatible with the EU competition rules, as long as they are linked to quality or brand image.

The EC, however, states in its Final Report that brick-and-mortar shop requirements imposed for the sole purpose to exclude online operators from the market, may infringe EU competition rules.

Pricing restrictions: Resale Price Maintenance (“RPM”) and Price collusion

E-commerce has significantly increased price transparency, competition on price and opportunities for users to compare different options in the internet.  According to the EC’s investigation, almost 30% of manufacturers systematically track resale prices: 67% track resale prices manually, whereas 38% use specific software (spiders).

The Final Report highlights that this may also increase the risk of RPM or collusion between competitors.

Resale Price Maintenance (RPM)

The imposition of minimum resale prices is considered a hardcore restriction under EU Competition law.  Similarly, when manufacturers seek to enforce compliance with recommended prices through contractual restrictions or some form of coercion, they may also infringe competition rules.

The EC is concerned that online price transparency may facilitate such practices, making it easier for manufacturers to detect deviations and enforce RPM provisions.

You can read articles on The Antitrust Attorney Blog on Resale Price Maintenance here.

Price collusion

Price fixing between competitors is considered one of the most serious infringements under EU competition rules.

The Final Report found that almost 50% of retailers track online prices of competitors, and 78% of them use software to monitor rivals’ prices, adjusting their own prices accordingly.

The EC is thus concerned that price monitoring may facilitate or strengthen collusion between retailers, by making the detection of deviations from the collusive agreement easier, while allowing them to counteract by adjusting their prices.

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