Request to re-open Glaxo ‘dual pricing’ case rejected by General Court: The end of the road for challenges to dual pricing?

Entering into agreements that erect barriers to parallel exports between EU markets is generally a high-risk endeavour, which is likely to attract the attention of the competition authorities.  Nevertheless, in the pharmaceutical industry the financial stakes can be high – medicines are often sold at very different prices in different Member States, due to the different applicable health policies.  

Relatively low mandated prices in Spain have led a number of companies to devise sales structures which reduced the flow of parallel exports out of the country – in particular, through the use of so-called dual pricing schemes.  Under such schemes, prices charged to wholesalers differ depending on whether the medicines were resold in Spain or exported to other Member States; in some cases this is achieved by selling all products at the export price, and granting rebates to wholesalers where the products do not in fact leave the country.  While not explicitly prohibiting parallel trade, such practices are likely to reduce the financial incentive for wholesalers to export.

GSK introduced such a scheme in 1998, and applied to the European Commission for an individual exemption (under a procedure which has since been repealed).  This application, and a subsequent complaint by the industry body for parallel traders (the EAEPC), has led to what must be one of the longest-running competition cases.  Initially found by the Commission to be restrictive of competition by object, GSK succeeded before the European Courts in showing that the Commission had given insufficient consideration to whether the practice warranted an exemption.  The case was therefore remitted to the Commission for further consideration.  In January 2010, GSK formally withdrew its original application for an individual exemption.  However, that was not the end of the matter, as the EAEPC’s complaint remained live. By this time, however, GSK had changed its practices, so the Commission rejected the complaint and closed its file.  EAEPC persisted, and lodged an appeal.

The General Court Judgment

It is this appeal that has given rise to the most recent development. On 26 September 2018, the General Court (GC) approved the Commission’s stance, effectively putting an end to this case (appeals to the Court of Justice are rare in rejection cases). 
 
The GC judgment demonstrates that while there was still some sympathy for EAEPC’s appeal, the Court was unable to identify any continued Union interest. The Court agreed with the applicant that the previous judgments have generated legal interest in relation to the “analysis of … dual-pricing systems in the light of Article 101 TFEU”.  However, that was not sufficient reason to require the Commission to continue examining the applicant’s complaint. 

The Court held that a “specific and genuine interest” is required to justify use of the Commission resources. Likewise, EAEPC’s contention that GSK’s practices and the Commission’s “inaction” in the late 1990s led to the adoption of dual pricing by other manufacturers such as Pfizer, Janssen-Cilag and Lilly was not accepted as good reason for requiring the Commission to act now. 

The future of dual pricing schemes? 

The relevance of the GC decision for other dual pricing schemes should not be overstated: the rejection of EAEPC’s complaint turns on its particular facts.  Indeed, the fate of another Commission investigation into Spanish dual pricing practices more generally (referred to in the Commission rejection decision and the GC judgment) is unclear (the Commission website shows no record for the case number cited by the GC).  

However, developments have also continued in Spain.  Within the past six months, the Spanish Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by the EAEPC against a lower court rejection of a complaint against Janssen-Cilag’s drug supply scheme, finding that the scheme did not breach competition law.  More recently, the Spanish competition authority closed an investigation into alleged collusion between pharmaceutical manufacturers in relation to the introduction of such schemes in the mid-2000s.  The authority found that the companies’ schemes were the result of changes in pharmaceutical legislation, not of anti-competitive agreements.

Despite the successes for the originator companies, it remains the case that agreements which seek to limit parallel trade within the EU are high risk of being found to restrict competition by object and, as the Glaxo Greece case has shown (see our recent report, here), unilateral conduct may also be caught.  

Of course, from a UK perspective, a no-deal Brexit may make prohibiting parallel exports possible again, but it is unlikely to be possible under any likely successor to the Chequers proposal.  In any event, agreements affecting exports within the European Union will continue to be caught.

The Ping judgment – CAT confirms that internet sales ban is restrictive of competition ‘by object’

In a judgment handed down on 7 September, the UK’s Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) upheld the CMA’s decision of August 20171 that golf equipment manufacturer Ping’s online sales ban was a restriction of competition ‘by object’ and did not qualify for any exemption.  Although the CAT held that Ping’s aim2 in implementing the policy was a legitimate one, the ban was, by its very nature, liable to harm competition between Ping’s retailers. Whilst the CAT did find that the CMA had erred in law by seeking to carry out a proportionality analysis3 (which was not relevant to the question of whether the policy was caught by the prohibition in Article 101(1)), the CAT held that this had no impact on the overall conclusion.  In a small victory for Ping, the CAT found some minor errors in the CMA’s calculation of the fine, resulting in a small reduction in the penalty. 

The CAT’s response to Ping’s grounds of appeal

By object infringement

Ping’s submission was that the presence or absence of a “plausibly pro-competitive rationale” is the key to identifying an infringement by object. However the CAT stated that this submission did not reflect the law as set out in Cartes Bancaires. The CAT was “of the clear view” that regardless of Ping’s subjective aim in introducing the internet sales ban as a means of promoting custom fitting, the ban may be characterised as an object infringement if it reveals a sufficient degree of harm to competition.4  In the CAT’s analysis, the existence of a pro-competitive objective does not per se preclude a finding of infringement by object. This accords with the Court of Justice’s holding in Pierre Fabre that, by excluding a method of distance selling, the internet ban was liable to restrict competition even if that was not its purpose. 

In the current case the Tribunal found that “the potential impact of the ban on consumers and retailers [was] real and material”. In its view, the ban restricts intra-brand competition; prevents retailers from attracting consumers located outside their catchment areas by offering better prices/service; and removes the advantages of online sales (in particular, access from any location 24 hours a day) to the detriment of consumers. The CAT accepted Ping’s submission that objective justification and proportionality are not in themselves relevant to an assessment of whether an agreement is an infringement by object. 

The human rights ground

According to Ping, its appeal concerned the freedom of a company to pursue a business which involves the sale of a product whose properties are fundamentally inconsistent with internet selling. Ping maintained that it built its brand image as a manufacturer which sells only customised clubs and submitted that the CMA’s decision contravened its human rights under Article 16 by requiring it to sell a product it did not sell and did not wish to sell (i.e. non-fitted clubs). The CAT dismissed this argument, finding that since Ping’s internet policy constitutes an object restriction under Article 101(1), any restriction on the exercise of its rights under Articles 16 and 17 as a result was “proportionate to the legitimate aim of avoiding the distortion of competition within the EU.”  The CAT also accepted the CMA’s submission that the decision does not force Ping to sell a product that it does not already sell –Ping could maintain its policy of promoting custom fitting with or without the ban. 

In relation to the alternative measures proposed by the CMA, Ping’s fundamental objection was that they were likely to lead to customers making uninformed decisions as to which clubs to buy, thereby harming their game and ultimately damaging Ping’s brand. The Tribunal said this was “not compelling”: there is technology that enables an accurate assessment of custom fitting online and other premium golf club brands sell their custom fit golf clubs online.  This suggested that “guessing [custom fit measurements] amongst customers of those brands is not a significant problem”.

The penalty

The CAT considered that the £1.45 million fine imposed by the CMA was “slightly too high” and a further small reduction was therefore appropriate. It found that a fair and proportionate fine, taking into account that it was not an ‘aggravated’ infringement, should be £1.25 million.

The CAT concluded that the CMA erred in treating director involvement as an aggravating factor on the specific facts of the case. If the fact of director-level knowledge alone were treated as an aggravating factor then this infringement could never have been considered as anything other than aggravated. However, Ping restricted competition law through its negligence rather than with intention and so applying an uplift in this case would be “meaningless” and should be “reserved for more reprehensible behaviour”. 

Comment

As we noted in our comment on the CMA’s decision (here), the infringement decision itself was not surprising – outright sales bans have long been considered problematic.  The fact that the CAT has upheld the CMA’s decision is therefore, in itself, equally unsurprising.  Of more interest was the CAT’s consideration of the CMA’s use of an ‘Alternatives Paper’ – this was part of the CMA’s by object case, showing that there were alternative, less restrictive means of satisfying Ping’s legitimate policy aim.  Whilst finding that the CMA had erred in law in its approach, the CAT nevertheless concluded that this was not sufficient to overturn the CMA’s decision.  Rather, the CAT sought to square a particularly tricky circle on the facts of this case – it had sympathy with both the ‘legitimate aim’ behind Ping’s policy and the CMA’s conclusion that an outright internet sales ban is a by object infringement that was “clearly … not objectively justified”.  It seems that the fact that other brands made their custom-fit clubs available online and that Ping itself allowed sales over the internet in the US were decisive here.  

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1 We commented on the CMA’s decision here

2 Ping contends that the internet ban prevents consumers from making uninformed decisions about their custom fitting specification and so guards against blame being levelled at Ping causing damage to its brand.

3 The CMA previously determined that the internet ban should be prohibited on the basis that the company could have achieved its legitimate aim through less restrictive means. 

4 The Tribunal accepted the CMA’s analysis that if the internet sales ban is so inherently damaging to competition as to amount to an object infringement, it is not necessary to conduct an assessment of the actual effects. 

Pharma stock management - nothing extraordinary in limiting parallel trade?

Pharmaceutical stock management – the brand-owner practice of limiting quantities sold to levels required for the local market in a bid to limit parallel exports – has been a feature of European markets for at least much of the past two decades. 

It was the 2004 Bayer (Adalat) decision of the Court of Justice, coupled with the continued supply obligations in Article 81 of Directive 2001/83 (as amended) which opened up a route for brand owners to effectively limit exports from lower price Member States without risking engaging the prohibition on anti-competitive agreements for limiting parallel trade.  That route essentially rested on unilateral conduct by the brand owner – but as such left open the risk of abuse of dominance rules applying.  As pharma markets are often narrowly drawn by competition regulators, this remained a significant concern.

It was another year before the first case raising the question of how Article 102 applied to stock management came before the Courts (Syfait, 2005).  That case was a referral to the CJEU from the Greek Competition Commission – but the request was stymied by a procedural point, and the Court declined to respond to the request for a preliminary ruling.  It was another few years before the same case came back before the CJEU.  This time the CJEU endorsed the benefits to consumers from parallel trade, and clarified that it may be an abuse of a dominant position for a pharmaceutical manufacturer to refuse to meet ‘ordinary orders’ from existing customers (Lelos, 2008).

Surprisingly, it took 10 years before the next development in the saga, when the Hellenic Competition Commission (“HCC”) found that GlaxoSmithKline (“GSK”) had abused a position of dominance in the market for migraine medicines in Greece by refusing to fulfil any orders in their entirety of Imigran and by refusing to meet ‘ordinary orders’ from wholesalers.  As a result, the HCC fined GSK a total of just over €4 million.  In reaching that decision, the HCC clarified that orders from wholesalers which were out of all proportion to a previous order history, could legitimately be refused as being of an ‘extraordinary’ character.  Assessing whether an order was ‘ordinary’ within the meaning set out in Lelos required a review against the annual size of previous orders and supplies per wholesaler, total national consumption per year and the pattern of previous business relations between the pharmaceutical manufacturer and the wholesaler in question.  Despite its findings on abuse, the HCC indicated that orders of significant quantities of products intended primarily for the parallel export market are likely to qualify as ‘extraordinary’, and rejected other parts of the complaints against GSK on that basis.

It seems that stock management issues in general may once again be an area of particular focus for regulators – it is interesting to note that in its case opening report initiating formal antitrust proceedings against Aspen Pharmacare, the Commission cites stock management alongside unfair and excessive prices.  Whatever the outcome of that case, it is clear that even a dominant firm can legitimately refuse orders that are ‘extraordinary’, but in doing so, the manufacturer must be able to justify this decision by reference to national market requirements and previous business relations with the wholesaler in question.

Online sales bans in the sports equipment sector: the CMA’s Ping decision

In August last year, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced that it had imposed a fine of £1.45 million on Ping Europe Limited (Ping) for breaching the EU and UK competition rules.  The CMA found that Ping had infringed the Chapter 1 prohibition of the Competition Act 1998 and Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) by entering into agreements with two UK retailers which banned the sale of its golf clubs online.  The CMA chose to apply Rule 10(2) of its procedural rules and addressed the decision only to Ping.  A non-confidential version of the decision was published in December 2017, revealing the UK competition authority’s detailed reasoning for the first time.  

Background. Ping is a manufacturer of golf clubs, golf accessories and clothing.  It operates a selective distribution system in the UK, supplying only retailers which meet certain qualitative criteria. Ping considered that ‘dynamic face-to-face custom fitting’1 was the best way to enhance golf-club choice and quality for consumers, and that such custom fitting could not take place over the internet.  As a result, Ping instigated an ‘internet policy’ which banned its authorised retailers from selling any of its golf clubs online.

The CMA’s competition assessment.  Relying on the CJEU’s judgment in Pierre Fabre, the CMA held Ping’s online sales ban restricted competition ‘by object’.  In the UK authority’s analysis, the ban reduced retailers’ ability to reach customers outside their local geographic areas and to win customers’ business by offering better prices online.  The CMA also relied on Advocate General Wahl’s Opinion in Coty (the CMA’s decision pre-dated the CJEU’s Coty judgment, which we commented on here).  AG Wahl had contrasted the contractual clause at issue in that case (which prevented authorised retailers from selling on third-party online platforms) with more serious restrictions, such as the outright internet sales ban that gave rise to the Pierre Fabre ruling.

Ping had argued that its online sales ban was objectively justified under the competition rules for three main reasons:

  1. The aim of the ban was to promote face-to-face custom fitting, which fosters inter-brand competition by enhancing product quality and consumer choice;
  2. The ban was necessary to protect Ping’s brand image.  Selling non-custom-fitted clubs would result in an inferior product being placed in consumers’ hands, which would damage Ping’s reputation;
  3. The ban enabled Ping to resolve a ‘free rider’ problem by ensuring that authorised retailers had appropriate incentives to invest in custom fitting. It would be commercially unsustainable for retailers to make investments in appropriate facilities if a potential customer could obtain a custom fitting in a bricks-and-mortar store and then buy the clubs online.

Noting that other high-end golf club manufacturers such as Callaway and Titleist did not restrict online sales of custom-fit clubs, the CMA dismissed Ping’s submissions on objective justification.  Whilst the CMA accepted that the promotion of custom fitting was a “genuine commercial aim”, it thought Ping could have achieved this through alternative, less restrictive means.  According to the CMA, the “main alternative” available to Ping was to permit authorised retailers to sell online if they could “demonstrate [their] ability to promote custom fitting in the online sales channel”.2

Ping’s appeal to the CAT.  Ping has appealed against the CMA’s decision.  In its press release responding to the decision, Ping stated: “Our Internet Policy is an important pro-competitive aspect of our long-standing commitment to custom fitting”.  It also argues in its Grounds of Appeal that the CMA was wrong to find that the online sales ban was disproportionate: the CMA’s proposed alternative measures would, in Ping’s view, be impractical and less effective at maximising rates of custom fitting.  The appeal is due to be heard by the UK Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) in May this year.

Comment.  The Ping decision is the latest in a line of recent cases in which suppliers have sought to restrict retailers’ ability to sell products over the internet.  As we noted here, the German Bundeskartellamt has taken a particularly dim view of online sales restrictions in a number of decisions concerning brand owners’ selective distribution systems.  The publication of the Ping decision also comes hot on the heels of the CJEU’s preliminary ruling in the Coty case, in which it was held that manufacturers of luxury goods can, in principle, prevent their authorised retailers from selling via third-party online platforms such as Amazon and eBay, provided that certain conditions are fulfilled (see here).

Also of note was the CMA’s decision to set out in an ‘Alternatives Paper’ its provisional considerations of ‘realistic alternatives’ to achieve the legitimate aims identified by Ping.  Whilst the CMA states that the evidential burden of establishing whether the online sales ban was justified was Ping’s and despite the CMA’s assertion that it was not required to do so, it is interesting that the CMA was willing to engage in its own alternatives assessment.

It remains to be seen what the CAT will make of Ping’s justifications for its online sales ban.  In the meantime, however, the CMA’s decision again highlights the competition law risks of imposing an outright ban on internet sales.  Like other national competition authorities, the CMA has frequently emphasised the importance of the online sales channel in intensifying intra-brand price competition.  As Senior Director for Antitrust Enforcement Ann Pope put it in the CMA’s press release of August 2017: “The internet is an increasingly important distribution channel and retailers’ ability to sell online, and reach as wide a customer base as possible, should not be unduly restricted.

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1 Dynamic face-to-face custom fitting generally involves: an initial interview; a static fitting in which the golfer’s basic measurements are taken; the fitter identifying potential club shafts for the golfer; a dynamic fitting, including a swing-test assessment of how the golfer is hitting the ball; purchasing advice; and grip fitting.

2 In particular, Ping could (according to the CMA) require its retailers to display on their websites a prominent notice recommending that customers take advantage of custom fitting; and it could determine that only retailers with an appropriate website providing a range of Ping custom fit club options would satisfy its selective distribution requirements.

Third-party platform bans justified for genuinely luxury brands

The Court of Justice of the European Union (‘CJEU’) has today ruled that third-party platform bans may be justified in the selective distribution of luxury goods. The CJEU’s decision in the Coty Germany reference proceedings broadly follows the opinion of Advocate General Wahl which was handed down earlier this year (see here, and further background here). 

The Court makes a number of rulings which will be of interest to brand owners:

  • Selective distribution may be justified for luxury goods to protect the ‘allure and prestige’. This clears up the uncertainty which arose following the Pierre Fabre judgment which seemed to suggest that the preservation of a luxury image could not justify a restriction of competition. The CJEU has confirmed that the judgment in that case should be confined to the particular facts at issue.
  • Third party platform bans may be justified in the selective distribution of luxury goods. The CJEU has ruled that, in the context of selective distribution, a supplier of luxury goods can, in principle, prohibit authorised distributors from using ‘in a discernible manner’ third-party platforms such as Amazon. Any third-party platform ban must have the objective of preserving the luxury image of the goods, be applied uniformly and not in a discriminatory fashion, and be proportionate to the objective pursued.

This ruling certainly gives some more leeway for brand owners of luxury goods, but should not be seen as an absolute green light for third-party platform bans. In particular, such restrictions must be justified by the goods in question (i.e. they must have a genuine ‘aura of luxury’) and must be a proportionate means of preserving the luxury image. This will be for national courts and authorities to interpret, and we can expect a fairly high threshold. The German Competition Authority, the Bundeskartellamt, has already said that it considers the CJEU’s decision to be limited to genuinely prestigious products. That said, the ruling does make clear that third-party platform bans do not amount to a hardcore restriction of competition, and thus it will be open to brand owners to seek to justify their use on a case-by-case basis.  

Luxury brands, third party platforms and EU competition law – guidance from AG Wahl

The Court of Justice of the European Union (‘CJEU’) has today handed down Advocate General Wahl’s opinion in the Coty Germany reference proceedings (see press release here, the full opinion should be published later today). The press release explains that the Opinion proposes that the European Court find that a supplier of luxury goods may prohibit its authorised retailers from selling its products on third-party platforms such as Amazon and EBay. For the background to the case see our earlier post here

The Opinion begins by restating that selective distribution systems for luxury and prestige products do not necessarily fall within the prohibition of anticompetitive agreements under Article 101(1) if they meet three well-established criteria:

  1. the resellers are chosen on the basis of objective criteria of a qualitative nature which are determined uniformly for all and applied in a non-discriminatory manner for all potential resellers; 
  2. the nature of the product in question, including the prestige image, requires selective distribution in order to preserve the quality of the product and to ensure that it is correctly used; and 
  3. the criteria established do not go beyond what is necessary.
AG Wahl then goes on to deal with the restriction which is at the centre of this dispute, namely a provision which prohibits the authorised sellers from using third party platforms for internet sales “in a discernible manner”. He states that – in the present state of development of e-commerce – such a restriction does not necessarily fall within Article 101(1) where three criteria are met. However, it seems to us that the criteria he lists is merely a restatement of the well-established criteria for lawful selective distribution set out above, i.e. that the criteria:  

  1. are dependent on the nature of the product; 
  2. are determined in a uniform fashion and applied without distinction; and 
  3. do not go beyond what is necessary.
The assessment of the facts will ultimately be left to the German Court.  However, AG Wahl does observe that the contested clause does not appear to be caught by Article 101(1). In fact, he suggests that the restriction is likely to improve competition by ensuring the products are sold in an environment that meets the qualitative criteria and guarding against the phenomena of “parasitism” (a more loaded term than the usual reference to ‘free-riding’). He points out that the restriction does not amount to an absolute prohibition on online sales (which is considered a serous restriction of competition) for two reasons. First, the restriction still allows authorised distributors to sell through their own websites and to make use of third party platforms “in a non-discernible manner”. Second, distributors’ own online stores are still the preferred distribution channel so such a restriction cannot be assimilated to an outright ban or substantial restriction on internet sales.  This analysis leaves a number of questions open, and certainly suggests that the analysis of such restrictions may change if the popularity of third party platforms continues to grow.  

Finally, the Opinion proposes that, in the event that a restriction on third party platforms does fall within Article 101(1), it may well be exempted under Article 101(3), including under the block exemption for vertical agreements. AG Wahl does not consider a third party platform ban to be a hardcore restriction which would automatically exclude the relevant distribution agreement from the benefit of the block exemption. 

Overall, the AG Opinion appears to be in line with the Commission’s recent final report in its e-commerce sector inquiry, which recognised that price is not the only relevant competition consideration when selling goods online: “While price is a key parameter of competition between retailers, quality, brand image and innovation are important in the competition between brands. Incentivising innovation and quality, and keeping control over the image and positioning of their brand are of major importance for most manufacturers to help them ensure the viability of their business in the mid to long term.”  The AG Opinion is a first step in showing how this balance may in future be struck – although crucially the Opinion is not binding on the CJEU who will now begin its deliberations in this case. The final word on these issues will be left to the European Court, and this will no doubt be keenly awaited by brand owners, online retailers and third party platforms alike.

Transparency may undermine online competition: Commission’s Final Report on the E-commerce Sector Inquiry

On 10 May 2017 the European Commission published its Final Report on the E-commerce Sector Inquiry, together with accompanying Q&As, and, for those who want something rather longer, a Staff Working Document

The inquiry, launched over 2 years ago, and part of the wider Commission Digital Single Market Strategy (see our earlier comment here) has gathered evidence from nearly 1,900 companies connected with the online sale of consumer goods and digital content.
The Report’s main findings

  • Price transparency has increased through online trade, allowing consumers instantaneously to compare product and price information and switch from online to offline. The Commission acknowledges that this has created a significant ‘free riding’ issue, with consumers using the pre-sales services of ‘brick and mortar’ shops before purchasing products online. 

  • Increased price transparency has also resulted in greater price competition both online and offline.  It has allowed companies to monitor prices more easily, and the use of price-tracking software may facilitate resale price maintenance and strengthen collusion between retailers.

  • Manufacturers have reacted to these developments by seeking to increase their control of distribution networks though their own online retail channels, an increased use of ‘selective distribution’ arrangements (where manufacturers set the criteria that retailers must meet to become part of the distribution system) and the introduction of contractual restrictions to control online distribution.
How about changes to competition policy? 

The Report does not advocate any significant changes to European competition policy, but rather confirms the status quo. The key point of interest are as follows: 

  • Selective distribution – whilst the Commission has not recommended any review of the Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (‘VBER’) ahead of its scheduled expiry in 2022, the Commission notes that the use of selective systems aimed at excluding pure online retailers, for example by requiring retailers to operate at least one ‘brick and mortar’ shop, is only permissible where justified (for example in respect of complex or quality goods or to protect suitable brand image).

  • Pricing restrictions – dual pricing (i.e. differential pricing depending on whether sales are made online or through a bricks and mortar outlet) will generally be considered a ‘hardcore’ (or object) restriction of competition when applied to one and the same retailer, although it is capable of individual exemption under Article 101(3) TFEU, for example if the obligation is indispensable to address free-riding by offline stores.  

  • Restrictions on the use of marketplaces – the Report finds that an absolute ban on the use of an online marketplace should not be considered a hardcore restriction, although the Commission notes that a reference for a preliminary ruling is pending before the CJEU (C-230/16 - Coty Germany v Parfümerie Akzente).

  • Geo-blocking – a re-emphasis of the existing position on territorial and customer restrictions – active sales restrictions are allowed, whereas passive sales restrictions are generally unlawful. Within a selective distribution system, neither active nor passive sales to end users may be restricted. The Commission also make clear that companies are free to make their own unilateral decisions on where they choose to trade.

  • Content licensing – the significance of copyright licensing in digital content markets is noted, as is the potential concern that licensing terms may suppress innovative business practices.  

  • Big Data – possible competition concerns are identified relating to data collection and usage. In particular, the exchange of competitively sensitive data (e.g. in relation to prices and sales) may lead to competition problems where the same players are in direct competition, for example between online marketplaces and manufacturers with their own shop.  
What happens next?

The Commission has identified the need for more competition enforcement investigations, particularly in relation to restrictions of cross-border trade.  It is expected that more investigations will be opened in addition to those already in play in respect of holiday bookings, consumer electronics and online video games. In a more novel approach, the Commission’s press release also name-checks a number of retailers (in particular in fashion) who have already reformed their business practices “on their own initiative”.
  
The Commission also highlights the need for a consistent application of the EU competition rules across national competition authorities.  It remains to be seen whether the Commission will seek to use its enforcement investigations to address inconsistencies such as those evident in the more interventionist stance of some national authorities (e.g. the Bundeskartellamt) in respect of issues such as pricing restrictions.

Back to the future: the Commission opens e-commerce competition investigations

True to its current focus on all things digital, the European Commission has recently announced that it has launched three separate investigations into whether certain online sales practices prevent, in breach of EU antitrust rules, consumers from benefiting from cross-border choice in their purchases of consumer electronics, video games and hotel accommodation at competitive prices.

The context to the investigations is the Commission's Digital Single Market Strategy and its related sector inquiry on e-commerce, which suggested that the use of online sales restrictions were widespread throughout the EU (previous posts here and here).

The Commission is now examining whether the companies concerned are breaking EU competition rules by “unfairly restricting retail prices” or by excluding customers from certain offers because of their nationality or location (geo-blocking). 

The Commission’s rationale for the inquires is that these practices may make cross-border shopping or online shopping in general more difficult and ultimately harm consumers by preventing them from benefiting from greater choice and lower online prices.  Whether the evidence gathered from the investigations ultimately bears out this hypothesis is very much an open question. 

Whatever the wider benefits to the Commission of the sector investigation, it is questionable whether these investigations in themselves justify the full arsenal of an antitrust sector inquiry.  To judge by the press release, at least a significant part of the Commission’s concern appears to relate to classical infringements of competition law – resale price maintenance and contractual barriers to parallel trade – which merely happen to have come to light through the sector inquiry.  Time will tell whether this hypothesis is correct, or whether more specific types of online anti-competitive conduct are in fact concerned.

The European Commission’s E-commerce Conference

On 6 October, the Commission held a conference on its Preliminary Findings of the E-commerce Sector Inquiry: the entire day was made available via webcast (no geo-blocking for the Commission…).  

This follows the publishing of its Preliminary Report last month (which we covered here and here).  The conference was an opportunity for those working in industry, academia and competition authorities around the EU to comment on the findings.  A list of the speakers can be found here.  We have provided a summary of the main issues raised below.

Distribution

In today’s digital world, selective distribution systems are used for a very wide range of products and they are no longer limited to those products which are accompanied by a service.  It was suggested that using selective distribution to ban the use of third party platforms raised important competition law and political questions.

In the context of consumer goods, selective distribution can be beneficial, allowing brands to maintain consistency across retail channels and strengthening consumer protection.  However, it was noted that they can be detrimental to SME retailers, which often struggle to gain market share as a result of restrictive distribution practices.  The need for clear and objective criteria was also raised as an issue.  Some industry representatives called for greater parity between online and brick and mortar stores in terms of the products they are allowed to sell.  This view was not shared by all – others were quick to emphasise the differences between online and physical stores and the benefits of differentiating between these types of sales.  

Turning to the media content sector, the focus was on the use of exclusivity which gives rise to a similar dynamic to selective distribution in the goods economy.  On the one hand, the competition for exclusivity among media organisations has been a driver of innovation and investment in the production of new technologies (e.g. Ultra HD TVs) and has facilitated the creation of more choice among content providers.  On the other hand, distribution contracts are often awarded for lengthy terms and – in the Commission’s view – certain terms risk giving rise to anti-competitive effects.  One example which was discussed was the use of automatic renewal provisions, extending the duration of exclusivity; however, such terms may be justified on the basis of the considerable investment needed to create new content. Such terms will need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Cross-border access to content

The paradox that 50% of EU citizens shop online but only 15% shop cross-border was raised as an important issue.  The volume of complaints about geo-blocking directed to National Competition Authorities varied significantly.  Opinions differed on the prioritisation of geo-blocking and territorial restrictions generally.  

The discussion on consumer goods focused on the ability to sell across borders.  Legal fragmentation and lack of harmonisation, personalised products and distribution capacity were all identified as reasons why cross-border sales may be limited.  In addition to technical and logistical barriers, selective distribution systems were also considered to play a part in the availability of products in specific regions. 

Geo-blocking occupied a large part of the discussion on online content distribution.  Industry representatives argued that the territoriality identified in the report is not the result of active efforts by distributors to fragment the market.  Instead, it was said to reflect diverging national demands and differences in the level of investment that broadcasters are prepared to make in each territory.  The possibility of pan-European licences was dismissed as being prohibitively expensive as well as having the potential to be anti-competitive. 

Pricing

Issues surrounding pricing and pricing mechanisms were raised throughout the day.  There was general agreement that the competitive impact of such mechanisms in e-commerce will depend heavily on the level of market power of those imposing the prices.

An interesting point on price discrimination was raised in the context of consumer goods.  If price discrimination is banned, firms adapt by changing their pricing and product strategies, which could harm or benefit consumers depending on the market.  It was noted that vertical restraints could be used strategically by suppliers in the marketplace. 

Pricing mechanisms were also raised as a concern in relation to online digital content.  It was suggested that it might be necessary for the Commission to examine restrictive payment structures in contracts and perhaps regulate the area to ensure a level playing field between mobile platform providers and application developers.

The Commission has invited stakeholders to submit comments on its Preliminary Report by 18 November 2016.  It remains to be seen whether the commentary put forward during the conference and the divergence of industry views will be reflected the Final Report.  Past sector inquiries tend to suggest that the changes between the preliminary and final reports may be few and far between…

EU Court to rule on ability of luxury brand owners to control online distribution

Following a dispute in Germany between perfume and cosmetics manufacturer Coty and one of its retail distributors (Parfümerie Akzente), a German court has sought clarifications on the proper application of the EU competition rules in respect of online distribution to the Court of Justice of the EU ("CJEU").  The case will likely decide how much control luxury brand owners have over distribution of their products on online platforms such as Amazon or eBay.  Whilst not a party to the German case, Amazon.com has recently sought permission to intervene in the case in order to ensure the views of third party online platforms are heard.

The original dispute arose in Germany after Coty sought to prevent Parfümerie Akzente from making sales through Amazon’s market place. 

On 18 July 2016 the Frankfurt Court of Appeals requested the CJEU to provide a preliminary ruling on whether a restriction by luxury brand owners on the use of online platforms is compatible with Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (“TFEU”).
 
Questions to the CJEU

The CJEU has been asked to consider the following:

  • Is the use of selective distribution systems by luxury brand owners to protect the ‘luxury image’ of their products compatible with Article 101(1) TFEU?
  • Is a general ban on online platforms compatible with Article 101(1) TFEU, even if the platform meets the criteria of the selective distribution system?
  • Does prohibiting the use of online platforms constitute a restriction by object under Article 101(1) TFEU as it restricts customer group retailers can sell to and their ability to make passive sales?

For luxury brand owners, the ability to have some control over the retail environment, whether online or offline, is an important consideration when setting up a selective distribution policy.  The nature of the products concerned will also be relevant in assessing whether restrictions are permissible.  Whether Amazon will be able to argue its case will however depend on whether the Court grants it permission to intervene. Demonstrating sufficient interest has historically been a difficult hurdle for companies to overcome, particularly where they have not been involved in the proceedings before the national court.  

Background to online selective distribution

The European Commission Guidelines on Vertical Restraints (“the Guidelines”) allows a supplier operating a (qualitative) selective distribution system to impose equivalency requirement restrictions on authorised distributors in respect of online versus offline sales.  For example, obligations on authorised retailers to meet equivalent criteria in respect of online product presentation and sales advice as applies to their bricks and mortar sales.  However, Coty was seeking to impose an outright ban on the use of third party platforms (such as Amazon marketplace) and no doubt sought solace in the Guidelines which do specifically permit restrictions on sales through third party internet sites where those sites display the platform’s name and/or logo (Guidelines, paragraph 54). 

In a number of Decisions on selective distribution agreements, the German Bundeskartellamt ("FCO") has taken a dim view of prohibitions on online sales.  For example, the FCO’s investigation into Sennheiser’s selective distribution system resulted in the removal of a prohibition on sales on third-party platforms.  In that case Amazon itself was already an authorised distributor but the ruling opened up the possibility of sales being made over third party platforms, for example Amazon Marketplace.  In its investigations into Adidas and ASICS the FCO also found that general prohibitions on sales via third party platforms in selective distribution systems restrict intra-brand competition, and harmed small and medium-sized distributors. 

Conclusion

Brand owners and online retailers will be watching this case with interest as the CJEU will clarify a central question of whether it can ever be acceptable under competition law to restrict internet sales in order to protect brand image.