|A major game developer is taking on Apple over its App Store’s take of 30% of in-app purchases. Antitrust regulators will be paying keen attention.|
In a case sure to be watched closely by antitrust regulators in the United States, European Union, and elsewhere, a major video games developer is suing Apple for its App Store practices. The litigation was sparked after Epic Games tried to get its users to make in app purchases aside and apart from the app downloaded from the Apple Store, for Apple is entitled to as much as 30% of such sales under its terms of services. Apple swiftly removed Epic Games’ Fortnite, claiming a violation of its terms of service, and Google quietly followed suit by removing the multiplayer game from the Play Store.
In its complaint filed in federal court in California, Epic Games is arguing that Apple’s practices violate federal and California antitrust and anti-competition laws. Epic Games argued
- This case concerns Apple’s use of a series of anti-competitive restraints and monopolistic practices in markets for (i) the distribution of software applications (“apps”) to users of mobile computing devices like smartphones and tablets, and (ii) the processing of consumers’ payments for digital content used within iOS mobile apps(“in-app content”). Apple imposes unreasonable and unlawful restraints to completely monopolize both markets and prevent software developers from reaching the over one billion users of its mobile devices (e.g., iPhone and iPad) unless they go through a single store controlled by Apple, the App Store, where Apple exacts an oppressive 30% tax on the sale of every app. Apple also requires software developers who wish to sell digital in-app content to those consumers to use a single payment processing option offered by Apple, In-App Purchase, which likewise carries a 30% tax.
- In contrast, software developers can make their products available to users of an Apple personal computer (e.g., Mac or MacBook) in an open market, through a variety of stores or even through direct downloads from a developer’s website, with a variety of payment options and competitive processing fees that average 3%, a full ten times lower than the exorbitant 30% fees Apple applies to its mobile device in-app purchases.
Of note, Epic Games is not suing Apple for monetary damages, which may be a shrewd public relations strategy. Instead the company is seeking an injunction against Apple to end what it calls Apple’s monopolistic practices in its App Store:
- Epic brings this suit to end Apple’s unfair and anti-competitive actions that Apple undertakes to unlawfully maintain its monopoly in two distinct, multibillion dollar markets: (i) the iOS App Distribution Market, and (ii) the iOS In-App Payment Processing Market (each as defined below).
- Epic is not seeking monetary compensation from this Court for the injuries it has suffered. Nor is Epic seeking favorable treatment for itself, a single company. Instead, Epic is seeking injunctive relief to allow fair competition in these two key markets that directly affect hundreds of millions of consumers and tens of thousands, if not more, of third-party app developers.
Apple is facing an antirust investigation in the European Union for substantially the same conduct Epic Games has sued the company for. In June 2020, the European Commission (EC) announced two antitrust investigations of Apple regarding allegations of unfair and anticompetitive practices with its App Store and Apple Pay. These investigations precede those in the United States by federal and state governments of Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon.
In a press release, the EC announced it “has opened a formal antitrust investigation to assess whether Apple’s conduct in connection with Apple Pay violates EU competition rules…[that] concerns Apple’s terms, conditions and other measures for integrating Apple Pay in merchant apps and websites on iPhones and iPads, Apple’s limitation of access to the Near Field Communication (NFC) functionality (“tap and go”) on iPhones for payments in stores, and alleged refusals of access to Apple Pay.” The EC noted that “[f]ollowing a preliminary investigation, the Commission has concerns that Apple’s terms, conditions, and other measures related to the integration of Apple Pay for the purchase of goods and services on merchant apps and websites on iOS/iPadOS devices may distort competition and reduce choice and innovation.” The EC contended “Apple Pay is the only mobile payment solution that may access the NFC “tap and go” technology embedded on iOS mobile devices for payments in stores.” The EC revealed “[t]he investigation will also focus on alleged restrictions of access to Apple Pay for specific products of rivals on iOS and iPadOS smart mobile devices” and “will investigate the possible impact of Apple’s practices on competition in providing mobile payments solutions.”
In a press release issued the same day, the EC explained it had also “opened formal antitrust investigations to assess whether Apple’s rules for app developers on the distribution of apps via the App Store violate EU competition rules.” The EC said “[t]he investigations concern in particular the mandatory use of Apple’s own proprietary in-app purchase system and restrictions on the ability of developers to inform iPhone and iPad users of alternative cheaper purchasing possibilities outside of apps.” The EC added “[t]he investigations concern the application of these rules to all apps, which compete with Apple’s own apps and services in the European Economic Area (EEA)…[and] [t]he investigations follow-up on separate complaints by Spotify and by an e-book/audiobook distributor on the impact of the App Store rules on competition in music streaming and e-books/audiobooks.”
The EC provided further detail on the scope of its inquiry and “will investigate in particular two restrictions imposed by Apple in its agreements with companies that wish to distribute apps to users of Apple devices:
(i) The mandatory use of Apple’s own proprietary in-app purchase system “IAP” for the distribution of paid digital content. Apple charges app developers a 30% commission on all subscription fees through IAP.
(ii) Restrictions on the ability of developers to inform users of alternative purchasing possibilities outside of apps. While Apple allows users to consume content such as music, e-books and audiobooks purchased elsewhere (e.g. on the website of the app developer) also in the app, its rules prevent developers from informing users about such purchasing possibilities, which are usually cheaper.
The EC explained the genesis of part of this inquiry being allegations leveled by Swedish music streaming platform, Spotify. The EC stated “[o]n 11 March 2019, music streaming provider and competitor of Apple Music, Spotify, filed a complaint about the two rules in Apple’s license agreements with developers and the associated App Store Review Guidelines, and their impact on competition for music streaming services.” The EC explained the other part as “[o]n 5 March 2020, an e-book and audiobook distributor, also filed a complaint against Apple, which competes with the complainant through its Apple Books app.” The EC asserted “[t]his complaint raises similar concerns to those under investigation in the Spotify case but with regard to the distribution of e-books and audiobooks.”
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