Articles Posted in Per Se Antitrust Violation

 

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Following DOJ’s remarks on blockchain, it was only a matter of time until antitrust law and the unstoppable blockchain world would meet in court. And it finally happened some months ago in the complex Bitmain case.

In this case a cryptocurrency developer and mining company sued Bitcoin Cash miners, developers, and exchange operators for violating of Section 1 of the Sherman Act and Section 4 of the Clayton Act. It accused them of manipulating a network upgrade to take control of the Bitcoin Cash blockchain. The Court dismissed the Amended Complaint twice (the last one with prejudice), for failing to plausibly show a conspiracy to hijack the network and centralize the market, an unreasonable restriction of trade, and antitrust injury.

  1. Blockchain and cryptocurrencies

Blockchain is such a complicated technology that just the simple task of defining it would require a much longer article. But the Southern District Court of Florida did a great job explaining in very simple terms what these two concepts––blockchain and cryptocurrencies–– are:

Cryptocurrency is a form of digital currency that trades in currency markets. The Satoshi Nakamoto whitepaper, published in October 2008, launched the idea of this “peer-to-peer” version of electronic cash that allows online payments from one party to another, independent of any financial institution. The Whitepaper coined the term “Bitcoin”, and today Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash are different forms of cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrencies are a “permissionless” system that rely on a network of decentralized encrypted public ledgers that document all digital transactions, known as a “blockchain”. The blockchain is a series of blocks, which are units of accounting that record new transactions in cryptocurrency. Confidence and trust in the accuracy of the transactions in the blockchain is possible because the decentralized ledgers are identical and continuously updated and compared.

The system has mechanisms that allow for consensus on the validity of the blockchain. One is “Proof-of-Work”, which is designed to eliminate the insertion of fraudulent transactions in the blockchain. Also, the “main chain” (normally, the longest chain) at any given time, is whichever valid chain of blocks has the most cumulative “Proofs-of-Work” associated with it. A consensus being reached on the longest blockchain is essential to the integrity of the network.

New cryptocurrency is created through a process called “mining”. Miners compete to “mine” virtual currencies by using computing power that solves complex math puzzles. The computer servers that first solve the puzzles are rewarded with new cryptocurrency, and the solutions to those puzzles are used to encrypt and secure the currency. The awarded currency is then stored in a digital wallet associated with the computing device that solved the puzzle.

  1. The Bitmain case

In a nutshell, this case is about how certain mining pools, protocol developers and crypto-exchange defendants allegedly colluded to manipulate a network upgrade by creating a new hard fork, taking control of the Bitcoin Cash cryptocurrency. In the end, however, the court concluded that the plaintiff ––a protocol developer of blockchain transactions and mining cryptocurrencies––, failed to (i) show a plausible conspiracy, (ii) define any relevant product market to prove an unreasonable restriction of trade, and (iii) show any antitrust injury.

The Parties

As Konstantinos Stylianou effectively explains in his article What can the first blockchain antitrust case teach us about the crypto economy?, in the cryptocurrency world it is important to understand what the different players are and how they are connected in the market: investors, mining pools (groups of miners that combine their mining resources), crypto-exchanges, and protocol developers. We highly recommend his article.

The plaintiff, United American Corporation (UAC), is a developer of technologies for both the execution of blockchain transactions and mining cryptocurrencies. One of them is called BlockNum, a distributed and decentralized ledger technology that allows the execution of blockchain transactions between any two telephone numbers regardless of their location, eliminating the need for cryptocurrency wallets. The other one is called BlockchainDome, which provides a low-cost energy-efficient solution for mining cryptocurrency. UAC built four domes in total that operate over 5,000 Bitcoin Cash-based miners, investing more than $4 million in technology.

On the flip side, there are three different categories of defendants:

  • The mining pools: (i) Bitmain Technologies operate two of the largest Bitcoin Core and Bitcoin Cash mining pools in the world: Antpool and BTC.com. It is also the largest designer of Application Specific Integrated Circuits (“ASIC”), which are chips that power the Antminer series of mining servers––the dominant servers mining on a number of cryptocurrency networks, including Bitcoin and Bitcoin derivatives; (ii) Wu, CEO of Bitmain Technologies and one of its founders; and (iii) Ver, founder of Bitcoin.com, which provides Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash services.
  • The crypto exchanges––Kraken and its CEO Jesse Powell––which operate exchanges on which Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash and other cryptocurrencies are traded.
  • The protocol developers Shammah Chancellor, Amaury Sechet and Jason Cox who––similarly to UAC––, work on the development of the software to execute blockchain transactions and mining of cryptocurrencies.

The Alleged Antitrust Conspiracy

Summarized from the briefing:

Bitcoin Cash (or “BCH”) emerged as a cryptocurrency from the original Bitcoin Core (or “BTC”) on August 1, 2017, as a result of a “hard fork”. A hard fork is a change to the protocol of a blockchain network whereby nodes that mine the newest version of the blockchain follow a new set of rules, while nodes that mine the older version continue to follow the previous rules. Because the two rule-sets are incompatible, two different blockchains are formed, with the new version branching off.

The 2017 hard fork resulted from a dispute over Bitcoin’s utility: whether it should primarily be used to store value or conduct transactions.

(Note: BTC’s resistance to this significant attempt to fork it further strengthened it by demonstrating that it can overcome an attack of this type. If BTC were subject to significant forks that change its nature, it would not have the trust it has now as a store of value. This and other attacks on BTC actually strengthen it—Bitcoin is Antifragile in this way).

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Author: Jarod Bona

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

For example, if you want to purchase some whey protein powder, you can walk into a store, go to the protein or smoothie-ingredient section, examine the prices of the different brands, and if one of them is acceptable to you, carry that protein powder to the register and pay the listed price.

Similarly, if you want to purchase a Fitbit Sense, 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 buying companies. In doing this, you will save a lot of money and hassle.

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 learn more about criminal antitrust law and end up in jail. You could also 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. And it often leads to civil antitrust litigation too. 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: Jarod Bona

Have you ever considered the idea that your business would be much more profitable if you didn’t have to compete so hard with that pesky competitor or group of competitors?

Unless you have no competition—which is great for profits, read Peter Thiel’s book—this notion has probably crossed your mind. And that’s okay—the government doesn’t indict and prosecute the antitrust laws for what is solely in your mind, at least not yet.

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But, except in limited instances, you should definitely not divide markets or customers with your competitors. Indeed, you shouldn’t even discuss the idea with your competitors, or, really, anyone (many antitrust cases are made on inconveniently worded internal emails).

The reason that you shouldn’t discuss it is that market-allocation agreements are one of the few types of conduct that the antitrust laws consider so bad they attach the label “per se antitrust violation.” The other per se antitrust offenses are price-fixing, bid-rigging, maybe tying, and sometimes group boycotts.

What is a Market-Allocation Agreement?

When competitors divide a market in which they can compete into sections in which one or more competitors decline to compete in favor of others, they have entered into a market-allocation agreement.

The antitrust problem with a market-allocation agreement is that a group of customers experience a reduction in the number of suppliers that serve them. The companies dividing the markets benefit, of course, because they have less competition for at least some of the market, which means that it is easier to raise prices or reduce quality.

It doesn’t matter, from an antitrust perspective, how the competitors divide the markets or even whether they both end up competing for that product or service after the agreement.

For an obvious example, ponder a small town with two large real-estate brokerage businesses—Northern Real Estate Brokers and Southern Real Estate Brokers. A river flows through the town, roughly dividing it into northern and southern regions. The Northern Real Estate Brokers mostly attract clients north of the river and the Southern Real Estate Brokers usually service clients south of the river. But the river is passable; there is a bridge and it isn’t that big of a river anyway. So sometimes agents of each brokerage will participate in transactions on the other side river from their normal client base.

Late one evening, in the middle of the bridge, the leaders of the two companies meet and agree that from that point on, each company would only represent sellers for properties on their side of the river.

This is a market-allocation agreement and the leaders could find themselves in antitrust litigation, or even jail (the Department of Justice will often prosecute per se antitrust violations).

While the geographic boundary created an obvious method for the two companies to divide markets, they also could have agreed not to steal each other’s existing customers (market allocation based upon incumbency, which is common). So if a real estate agent from the northern brokerage firm won a customer, no agent from the southern brokerage firm would compete for that customer’s business in the future.

This customer allocation agreement is also a per se antitrust violation. To see how this type of antitrust offense can develop in a seemingly innocent way, read our article on the anatomy of a per se antitrust violation.

In this way, the antitrust laws actually encourage stealing customers.

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Tying Agreement (Rope)

Author: Jarod Bona

Yes, in some instances, “tying” violate the antitrust laws. Whether you arrive at the tying-arrangement issue from the perspective of the person tying, the person buying the tied products, or the person competing with the person tying, you should know when the antitrust laws forbid the practice.

Most vertical agreements—like loyalty discounts, bundling, exclusive dealing, (even resale price maintenance agreements under federal law) etc.—require courts to delve into the pro-competitive and anti-competitive aspects of the arrangements before rendering a judgment. Tying is a little different.

Tying agreements—along with price-fixing, market allocation, bid-rigging, and certain group boycotts—are considered per se antitrust violations. That is, a court need not perform an elaborate market analysis to condemn the practice because it is inherently anticompetitive, without pro-competitive redeeming virtues. Even though tying is often placed in this category, it doesn’t quite fit there either. Again, it is a little different.

Proving market power isn’t typically required for practices considered per se antitrust violations, but it is for tying. And business justifications don’t, as a rule, save the day for per se violations either. But, in certain limited circumstances, a defendant to an antitrust action premised on tying agreements might defend its case by showing exactly why they tied the products they did.

At this stage, you might be asking, “what the heck is tying?” Do the antitrust laws prohibit certain types of knots? Do they insist that everyone buy shoes with Velcro instead of shoestrings? The antitrust laws can be paternalistic, but they don’t go that far.

A tying arrangement is where a customer may only purchase a particular item (the “tying” item) if the customer agrees to purchase a second item (the “tied” item), or at least agree not to purchase that second item from the seller’s competitors. It is sort of like bundling, but there is an element of express coercion.

With bundling, a seller may offer a lower combined price to buyers that purchase two or more items, but the buyers always have the right to just purchase one of the items (and forgo the discount). With tying, by contrast, the buyer cannot just purchase the one item; if it wants the first item, it must purchase the second.

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antitrust blizzard
Author: Jarod Bona

I am from Minnesota, so I am quite familiar with blizzards. They may be interesting to watch through a window from a room warmed by a fireplace, but you don’t want to get caught in one. The same is true for an antitrust blizzard: They are interesting to watch, but they can destroy you. Like driving a car through a winter blizzard, you have to pay close attention, make sure you do the right thing, and in the end, you could crash.

In case you get hit by one, you should be prepared: Create and follow an antitrust compliance policy. You may even get bonus points from the Department of Justice if you have (and follow) the right antitrust policy.

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Author: Jarod Bona

Maybe everyone really is conspiring against you? If they are competitors with each other—that is, if they have a horizontal relationship—they may be committing a per se antitrust violation.

A group boycott occurs when two or more persons or entities conspire to restrict the ability of someone from competing. This is sometimes called a concerted refusal to deal, which unlike a standard refusal to deal requires, not surprisingly, two or more people or entities.

A group boycott can create per se antitrust liability. But the per se rule is applied to group boycotts like it is applied to tying claims, which means only sometimes. By contrast, horizontal price-fixing, market allocation, and bid-rigging claims are almost always per se antitrust violations.

We receive many calls and messages about potential group boycott actions. This is probably the most frustrating type of antitrust conduct to experience as a victim. Companies often feel blocked from competing in their market. They might be the victim of marketplace bullying.

You can also read our Bona Law article on five questions you should ask about possible group boycotts.

Many antitrust violations, like price-fixing, tend to hurt a lot of people a little bit. A price-fixing scheme may increase prices ten percent, for example. Price-fixing victims feel the pain, but it is diffused pain among many. Typically either the government antitrust authorities or plaintiff class-action attorneys have the biggest incentive to pursue these claims.

Perpetrators of group-boycott activity, by contrast, usually direct their action toward one or very few victims. The harm is not diffused; it is concentrated. And it is often against a competitor that is just trying to establish itself in the market. The victim is often a company that seeks to disrupt the market, creating a threat to the established players. This is common.

The defendants may act like bullies to try to keep that upstart competitor from gaining traction in the market. Sometimes trade associations lead the anticompetitive charge.

Group boycott activity often occurs when someone new enters a market with a different or better idea or way of doing business. The current competitors—who like things just the way they are—band together to use their joint power to keep the enterprising competitor from succeeding, i.e. stealing their customers.

Sometimes group-boycott claims are further complicated when the established competitors—the bullies—use their relationships with government power to further suppress competition. Indeed, sometimes the competitors actually exercise governmental power.

This is what occurred in the NC Dental v. FTC case (discussed here, and here; our amicus brief is here): A group of dentists on the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners engaged in joint conduct, using their government power, to thwart teeth-whitening competition from non-dentists.

This, in my opinion, is the most disgusting of antitrust violations: a group of bullies engaging government power to knock out innovation and competition. And I am very happy to see the Federal Trade Commission take a pro-active role against such anticompetitive thuggery.

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Author: Jarod Bona

If you are looking for controversy, you came to the right place. Today, we discuss resale price maintenance, one of the most contentious issues in all of antitrust. If you look around and see a bunch of antitrust economists, hide your screen so they don’t start arguing with each other. Trust me; that is the last thing you want to experience.

Let’s start with some background: A resale price maintenance agreement is a deal between, for example, a supplier and a retailer that the retailer will not sell the supplier’s product to an end user (or anyone, for that matter) for less than a certain amount. It is a straight vertical price-fixing agreement.

That type of agreement has a storied—and controversial—past. Over a hundred years ago, the Supreme Court in a case called Dr. Miles declared that this type of vertical price fixing is per se illegal under the federal antitrust laws. This is a designation that is now almost exclusively limited to horizontal agreements.

During the ensuing hundred years or so, economists and lawyers debated whether resale price maintenance (RPM) really should be a per se antitrust violation. After all, there are procompetitive reasons for certain RPM agreements and the per se label is only supposed to apply to activity that is universally anticompetitive.

After a trail of similar issues over the years, the question again landed in the Supreme Court’s lap in a case called Leegin in 2007. In a highly controversial decision that led to backlash in certain states, the Supreme Court lifted the per se veil from these controversial vertical agreements and declared that, at least as far as federal antitrust law is concerned, courts should analyze resale price maintenance under the rule of reason (mostly).

You can read more about Leegin and how courts analyze these agreements in our prior article. And if you want to learn more about how certain states, like California, handle resale price maintenance agreements, you can read this article. Finally, if you are looking for a loophole to resale price maintenance agreements, read our article about Colgate policies and related issues.

Minimum advertised pricing policies (MAP) are related to resale price maintenance: you can read our article on MAP pricing and antitrust here. You might also want to read Steven Cernak’s article about the four questions you should ask before worrying about the antitrust risks of new distributor restraints.

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Golden Gate Bridge California

Author: Jarod Bona

In an earlier article, we discussed Leegin and the controversial issue of resale-price maintenance agreements under the federal antitrust laws. We’ve also written about these agreements here. And these issues often come up when discussing Minimum Advertised Price (MAP) Policies, which you can read about here.

As you might recall, in Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. (Kay’s Closet), the US Supreme Court reversed a nearly 100-year-old precedent and held that resale-price maintenance agreements are no longer per se illegal. They are instead subject to the rule of reason.

But what many people don’t consider is that there is another layer of antitrust laws that govern market behavior—state antitrust law. Many years ago during my DLA Piper days, I co-authored an article with Jeffrey Shohet about this topic. In many instances, state antitrust law directly follows federal antitrust law, so state antitrust law doesn’t come into play. (Of course, it will matter for indirect purchaser class actions, but that’s an entirely different topic).

For many states, however, the local antitrust law deviates from federal law—sometimes in important ways. If you are doing business in such a state—and many companies do business nationally, of course—you must understand the content and application of state antitrust law. Two examples of states with unique antitrust laws and precedent are California, with its Cartwright Act, and New York, with its Donnelly Act.

California and the Cartwright Act

This blog post is about California and the Cartwright Act. Although my practice, particularly our antitrust practice, is national, I am located in San Diego, California and concentrate a little extra on California. Bona Law, of course, also has offices in New York office, Minneapolis, and Detroit.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Supreme Court’s decision in Leegin to remove resale-price maintenance from the limited category of per se antitrust violations was quite controversial and created some backlash. There were attempts in Congress to overturn the ruling and many states have reaffirmed that the agreements are still per se illegal under their state antitrust laws, even though federal antitrust law shifted course.

The Supreme Court decided Leegin in 2007. It is 2020, of course. So you’d think by now we would have a good idea whether each state would follow or depart from Leegin with regard to whether to treat resale-price maintenance agreements as per se antitrust violations.

But that is not the case in California, under the Cartwright Act. Indeed, it is an open question.

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Law Library Books

Author: Jarod Bona

Law school exams are all about issue spotting. Sure, after you spot the issue, you must describe the elements and apply them correctly. But the important skill is, in fact, issue spotting. In the real world, you can look up a claim’s elements; in fact, you should do that anyway because the law can change (see Leegin and resale price maintenance).

And outside of a law-school hypothetical, it typically isn’t difficult to apply the law to the facts. Of course, what I like about antitrust is that the law evolves and is often unclear and applying it (whatever it is) challenges your thinking. Sometimes, you even need to ask your favorite economist for some help.

Anyway, if you aren’t an antitrust lawyer, it probably doesn’t make sense for you to advance deep into the learning curve so you are an expert in antitrust and competition doctrine. It might be fun, but it is a big commitment to get to where you would need to be, so you should consider devoting your extra time instead to something like CrossFit.

But you should learn enough about antitrust so you can spot the issues. This is important because you don’t want your company to violate the antitrust laws, which could lead to jail time, huge damage awards, and major costs and distractions. And as antitrust lawyers, we often counsel from this defensive position.

It is fun, however, to play antitrust from the offensive side of the ball. That is, utilize the antitrust laws to help your business. To do that, you need a rudimentary understanding of antitrust issues, so you know when to call us. Bona Law represents both plaintiffs and defendants in antitrust litigation of all sorts.

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Toys R Us Antitrust Conspiracy

Author: Jarod Bona

Like life, sometimes antitrust conspiracies are complicated. Not everything always fits into a neat little package. An articulate soundbite or an attractive infograph isn’t necessarily enough to explain the reality of what is going on.

The paradigm example of an antitrust conspiracy is the smoke-filled room of competitors with their evil laughs deciding what prices their customers are going to pay, or how they are going to divide up the customers. This is a horizontal conspiracy and is a per se violation of the antitrust laws.

Another, less dramatic, part of the real estate of antitrust law involves manufacturers, distributors, and retailers and the prices they set and the deals they make. This usually relates to vertical agreements and typically invites the more-detailed rule-of-reason analysis by courts. One example of this type of an agreement is a resale-price-maintenance agreement.

But sometimes a conspiracy will include a mixture of parties at different levels of the distribution chain. In other words, the overall agreement or conspiracy may include both horizontal (competitor) relationships and vertical relationships. In some circumstances, everyone in the conspiracy—even those that are not conspiring with any competitors—could be liable for a per se antitrust violation.

As the Ninth Circuit explained in In re Musical Instruments and Equipment Antitrust Violation, “One conspiracy can involve both direct competitors and actors up and down the supply chain, and hence consist of both horizontal and vertical agreements.” (1192). One such hybrid form of conspiracy (there are others) is sometimes called a “hub-and-spoke” conspiracy.

In a hub-and-spoke conspiracy, a hub (which is often a dominant retailer or purchaser) will have identical or similar agreements with several spokes, which are often manufacturers or suppliers. By itself, this is merely a series of vertical agreements, which would be subject to the rule of reason.

But when each of the manufacturers agree among each other to enter the agreements with the hub (the retailer), the several sets of vertical agreements may develop into a single per se antitrust violation. To complete the hub-and-spoke analogy, the retailer is the hub, the manufacturers are the spokes and the agreement among the manufacturers is the wheel that forms around the spokes.

In many instances, the impetus of a hub-and-spoke antitrust conspiracy is a powerful retailer that wants to knock out other retail competition. In the internet age, you might see this with a strong brick-and-mortar retailer that wants to take a hit at e-commerce competitors.

The powerful retailer knows that the several manufacturers need the volume the retailer can deliver, so it has some market power over these retailers. With market power—which translates to negotiating power—you can ask for stuff. Usually what you ask for is better pricing, terms, etc.

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