Articles Posted in Types of Antitrust Claims

Robinson-Patman-Act-Antitrust-300x200

Author: Steven Cernak

When I first started practicing antitrust law in the “80’s, the Robinson-Patman Act was already an object of derision.¹ With Chicago School thinking riding high in academia and the courts and antitrust law’s focus shifting to effects on consumers, not rivals, RP cases seemed to be dwindling down to nothing. My colleagues and I were convinced that RP would soon be dead and we would never again need to deal with its tortured language² and questionable economics.

But not all my colleagues. One insisted that Robinson-Patman would never be repealed—after all, what member of Congress would vote against protecting small business?—and the private right of action would mean that the threat of litigation would always at least affect negotiations even if the federal agencies stopped bring new cases.³  Despite our constant ridicule of his outdated ways, he insisted that I learn the intricacies of the statute and cases, analyze the latest changes to the Fred Meyer Guides, and otherwise prepare to take over from him the counseling of a client that sold goods “of like grade and quality” in at least three overlapping channels.

I’m glad he did. He was right. To this day, suppliers and retailers negotiate in the shadow of RP and require counseling about its sometimes-obscure details. Every year, new private litigation gets filed and generates opinions and even jury verdicts on Robinson-Patman issues.⁴  Fewer than in the “60’s but still greater than zero.  So for all the suppliers and the retailers through whom they sell—along with their respective counselors—here is a summary of what you need to know about RP in the 21st Century:

The Basics of the Robinson-Patman Act

There are two kinds of discrimination that RP is meant to prevent and where some litigation is still filed today. Section 2(a) prohibits the sale of the same commodity at different prices to two competing buyers by one seller if the result is harm to competition. It has several elements that must be met and potential defenses, all of which narrow the scope of its application. Sections 2(d) and 2(e) are per se prohibitions of the discriminatory provision of or payment for certain promotional aids meant to assist in resale of a seller’s commodity. Again, several elements must be met to prove a violation. In addition, Robinson-Patman applies only to commodities sold for use or resale in the U.S.

Section 2(a) Price Discrimination – Elements

The elements of a Section 2(a) claim are usually summarized as prohibiting (1) a difference in price (2) in reasonably contemporaneous sales to two buyers purchasing from a single seller, (3) involving commodities, (4) of like grade and quality (5) that may injure competition.

While price discrimination is “merely a price difference”, actual net prices must be compared, after taking into account all discounts, rebates and other factors affecting price. If the lower price is “functionally available” to the plaintiff but plaintiff chooses not to accept it, courts have held that such proof “essentially negates the discrimination element” of plaintiff’s price discrimination claim.⁵

The two sales at different prices must be reasonably contemporaneous, a question of fact that depends on the seasonal quality of the sales and overall market conditions. Also, those two contemporaneous transactions must be “sales”, not something else like leases, licenses or an offer to sell. Finally, two completed sales are required and so at least one court has held that this element is not met in competitive bid situations where the commodity is only purchased if the dealer’s bid is successful.⁶

Section 2(a), as well as sections 2(d) and 2(e), apply only to “commodities”, a term left undefined by the statute. Courts have consistently interpreted the term to mean tangible products. Intangible items that have been held not to be commodities include medical services, cable television programming, and advertising, including online advertising.

The two commodities sold at different prices must be “of like grade and quality” for Section 2(a) to apply. When interpreting that statutory language, lower courts have followed the US Supreme Court’s lead in FTC v. Borden Co. and focused on physical differences in the products that affect consumer marketability. In that case, the Court found two varieties of the defendant’s evaporated milk to be “of like grade and quality” because the products were physically identical, even though the higher-price branded version had gained consumer preference over the lower-priced private label version.⁸

The final element of a Section 2(a) violation is whether “the effect of such discrimination may be substantially … to lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly …”, which has been interpreted to mean that a plaintiff need not show an actual adverse effect on competition, only a “reasonable possibility” of such an effect.

Injury to competition generally is found at the level of a rival to the discriminating seller (“primary line injury”) or of the disfavored customer (“secondary line injury”). The Supreme Court’s Brooke Group opinion clarified that a successful primary line claim must meet the same difficult test required of predatory pricing plaintiffs.⁹ As a result, secondary line cases now predominate.

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large-monopoly-bus-300x169

Author: Jarod Bona

Do you or your competitor have a monopoly in a particular market? If so, your conduct or their conduct might enter the territory of the Sherman Act—Section 2—called monopolization.

If you are in Europe or other jurisdictions outside of the United States, instead of monopoly, people will refer to the company with extreme market power as “dominant.”

Of course, it isn’t illegal itself to be a monopolist or dominant (and monopoly is profitable). But if you utilize your monopoly power or obtain or enhance your market power improperly, you might run afoul of US, EU, or other antitrust and competition laws.

In the United States, Section 2 of the Sherman Act makes it illegal for anyone (person or entity) to “monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several states, or with foreign nations.” But monopoly, by itself, is not illegal. Nor is it illegal for a monopolist to engage in competition on the merits.

As an aside, I have heard, informally, from companies that are considered “dominant” in Europe that the label of “dominant” effectively diminishes their ability to engage in typical competitive behavior because they are under such heavy scrutiny by EU Competition authorities.

If you are interested in learning more about abuse of dominance in the EU, read this article.

In the United States, monopolists have more flexibility, but they are still under significant pressure and could face lawsuits or government investigations at any time, even when they don’t intend to violate the antitrust laws. There is often a fine line between strong competition on the merits and exclusionary conduct by a monopolist.

Here are the elements of a claim for monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act:

  • The possession of monopoly power in the relevant market.
  • The willful acquisition or maintenance of that power as distinguished from growth or development as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or historic accident.

The Possession of Monopoly Power in the Relevant Market

To determine whether an entity has monopoly power, courts and agencies usually first define the relevant market, then analyze whether the firm has “monopoly” power within that market.

But because the purpose of that analysis is to figure out whether certain conduct or an arrangement harms competition or has the potential to do so, evidence of the actual detrimental effects on competition might obviate the need for a full market analysis. If you want to learn more about this point, read FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists (and subsequent case law and commentary). Now that I think about it, this should probably be a future blog post.

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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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Resale Price Maintenance

Author: Jarod Bona

Some antitrust questions are easy: Is naked price-fixing among competitors a Sherman Act violation? Yes, of course it is.

But there is one issue that is not only a common occurrence but also engenders great controversy among antitrust attorneys and commentators: Is price-fixing between manufacturers and distributors (or retailers) an antitrust violation? This is usually called a resale-price-maintenance agreement and it really isn’t clear if it violates the antitrust laws.

For many years, resale-price maintenance—called RPM by those in the know—was on the list of the most forbidden of antitrust conduct, a per se antitrust violation. It was up there with horizontal price fixing, market allocation, bid rigging, and certain group boycotts and tying arrangements.

There was a way around a violation, known as the Colgate exception, whereby a supplier would unilaterally develop a policy that its product must be sold at a certain price or it would terminate dealers. This well-known exception was based on the idea that, in most situations, companies had no obligation to deal with any particular company and could refuse to deal with distributors if they wanted. Of course, if the supplier entered a contract with the distributor to sell the supplier’s products at certain prices, that was an entirely different story. The antitrust law brought in the cavalry in those cases.

You can read our article about the Colgate exception here: The Colgate Doctrine and Other Alternatives to Resale-Price-Maintenance Agreements.

In 2007, the Supreme Court dramatically changed the landscape when it decided Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. (Kay’s Closet). The question presented to the Supreme Court in Leegin was whether to overrule an almost 100-year old precedent (Dr. Miles Medical Co.) that established the rule that resale-price maintenance was per se illegal under the Sherman Act.

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Fraudulent-Concealment-Antitrust-Statute-of-Limitations-300x152

Authors: Aaron Gott and Nick McNamara

Antitrust conspiracies, like most conspiracies, are typically carried out in secret and often actively concealed by their participants for many years. But the statute of limitations for antitrust claims is only four years. So what happens if you discover that you were harmed by an antitrust conspiracy years after the fact? The answer could depend on which of the U.S. Court of Appeals has jurisdiction in your case.

Imagine you’re a retail grocer in the business of selling farm-fresh produce. Your store sources all of its carrots from local farms, many of which belong to a trade association of carrot growers (these carrot growers weren’t organized as a farm cooperative, which could provide them with a limited antitrust exemption you can read about here). Since you opened your grocery store several years ago, the price of carrots sold by these farms has been stable and reasonable. Then, all of a sudden, you notice that the price of locally farmed carrots has increased by 10%—overnight and for no apparent reason. Soon after you learn of the price hike, you receive an explanatory letter from the farm that sold the store its most recent batch of carrots. The letter apologizes for the increased price, which it attributes to a virus which has been harming local carrot crops. According to the letter, the farm hired plant biologists who confirmed the presence of the virus in the area.

You have never heard of a virus affecting carrots, but you have little reason to doubt the explanation provided by the farm. You review the scientific documentation attached to the letter and read up about the virus on Wikipedia; it turns out it is indeed a real virus that does affect carrots. You also hear that other grocers in the area have also received similar letters from other local carrot growers (but you didn’t talk to them directly because your antitrust compliance program forbids it). On top of it all, you have always had very cordial business relations with the sales representatives of the carrot farms. You decide to eat the lost profits, knowing that discontinuing the sale of locally farmed carrots would disappoint many loyal customers.

Five years later, you are tipped off by a former employee of one of the local carrot growers that the presence of the virus in the area was a complete fabrication, as was the supporting documentation submitted by the purported scientists. The ex-employee further informs you that the plan was hatched by the carrot growers’ trade association. Feeling cheated, you search the web for the antitrust statute of limitations, which you learn is four years.

But the good news is that the statute of limitations is not necessarily fatal to a claim involving an antitrust conspiracy. In fact, courts have long recognized that the distinguishing feature of illegal conspiracies is that they are almost always hidden from public view by design—and as a result, they often harm unwitting victims unaware they are being harmed. And, in some cases, courts have applied the equitable doctrine of fraudulent concealment to “toll” the statute of limitations in cases where the statute of limitations otherwise would have barred the claim.

You may have heard of a similar doctrine called the “discovery rule.” Under the discovery rule, a claim does not accrue—and the statute of limitations does not begin to run—until a reasonably diligent plaintiff discovers or should have discovered its injury. But there is a key difference: the discovery rule is a legal doctrine governing the point at which a statute of limitations begins to run, while tolling for fraudulent concealment is an equitable doctrine that assumes that the claim has already accrued and the statute of limitations has already run. In practice, the two doctrines have a nearly identical effect, so an antitrust plaintiff can typically plead both in the alternative. Both doctrines also have a due diligence requirement, so you can’t rely on them if, under the circumstances, a reasonable person would have investigated potential claims (for example, an unexplained, sudden price hike could give rise to a duty to investigate).

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bid-rigging-antitrust-300x200

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 almond 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 Versa 2, 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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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 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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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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Antitrust-Group-Boycott-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

Maybe everyone really is conspiring against you? If they are competitors—that is, 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. Typically either the government or plaintiff class-action attorneys have the biggest incentive to pursue these claims.

Group boycott activity, however, is usually directed 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.

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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Market-Allocation-Agreement-Per-Se-Antitrust-Violation-300x133

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 in your mind, at least not yet.

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But, except in limited instances, you should definitely not divide markets or customers. 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 experiences 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 across 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 sell 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 made for an obvious way for the two companies to divide markets, they also could have agreed not to steal each other’s customers. So if a real estate agent from northern brokerage firm claimed a customer, no agent from the southern brokerage firm would compete for their business.

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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