Ebooks once again in the antitrust cross-hairs

It’s hard not to be struck by the ironies afoot in the antitrust lawsuit brought last week by a group of independent bookstores against Amazon an the Big Six publishers.

It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that five of the six major publishers were facing antitrust charges brought by the Justice Department over their alleged price-fixing conspiracy with Apple. In their defense, the publishers (as well as many independent booksellers who filed friend of the court briefs in the case) argued that Amazon was the real villain in the piece and that their partnership with Apple was necessary to counter the baleful effects of Amazon’s ebook monopoly. Now, here they are being accused themselves of aiding and abetting Amazon’s ebook monopoly.

And, whereas the government accused the publishers of conspiring with Apple to raise ebook prices, here they’re accused of cooperating with Amazon to keep ebook prices too low, to the detriment of independents. Sometimes, you just can’t win for losing.

In any event, the case bears watching not just because it shows that the fight over ebook pricing remains far from settled, but because it focuses on Amazon’s use of proprietary DRM to maintain its purported monopoly. While DRM has been challenged before as being anti-consumer, or for its impact on fair use, the new lawsuit’s focus on DRM’s potential anti-competitive effects could break important legal ground if it gets anywhere.

The booksellers’ complaint, which seeks class-action status, is available here.