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Apple's App Store Subscription Policies Raise Antitrust Issues as Content Providers Fume

With Apple's announcement yesterday of new App Store subscription offerings and policies requiring all content providers to offer at least the option of in-app subscriptions at the same prices as external options, questions have been raised about how providers will respond to the likelihood that significant numbers of customers will likely choose options that require them to hand over 30% of their revenue to Apple.

The Wall Street Journal explores possible antitrust issues, with experts noting that any such case would hinge on the definition of the market, as that would determine how dominant Apple's position is in it.

"My inclination is to be suspect" about Apple's new service, said Shubha Ghosh, an antitrust professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Two key questions in Mr. Ghosh's mind: Whether Apple owns enough of a dominant position in the market to keep competitors out, and whether it is exerting "anticompetitive pressures on price."

Experts note that publishers might be able to argue that tablet devices constitute the market for their offerings, and Apple's dominance in that market could subject it to antitrust investigation. But a broader market encompassing the entire App Store ecosystem and thus smartphones and tablets in their entirety would likely not raise red flags due to Apple's much smaller share of that larger market.

"Millions will be spent litigating how broad the market is," said Herbert Hovenkamp, an antitrust professor at the University of Iowa College of Law.

Mr. Hovenkamp said digital media is the most plausible market. He said he doubted that Apple, currently, has a sufficiently dominant position in that market to warrant antitrust scrutiny.

All eyes are of course also on the content providers themselves, who would have to raise prices by 43% in order to provide Apple with a 30% cut and still maintain their existing income, should all transactions shift to in-app subscriptions.

While many content providers have yet to respond publicly to Apple's announcement as they weigh their options, music streaming service Rhapsody spoke out yesterday, noting that it will be talking with other companies in its same position in "determining an appropriate legal and business response to this latest development."

Our philosophy is simple too - an Apple-imposed arrangement that requires us to pay 30 percent of our revenue to Apple, in addition to content fees that we pay to the music labels, publishers and artists, is economically untenable. The bottom line is we would not be able to offer our service through the iTunes store if subjected to Apple's 30 percent monthly fee vs. a typical 2.5 percent credit card fee.

Publishers of existing App Store applications have until June 30th to comply with Apple's new policies.