Apple finds the water is warming up in App Store legal battle

Apple has found itself in court once again, but Qualcomm is no-where to be seen. Instead, a few of its loyal iLifers are challenging the firm over whether the App Store is an illegal monopoly.

The case itself dates back to 2012 and will aim to understand whether Apple is operating an unjustified monopoly through the App Store. Right now the case is in front of the Supreme Court, where the nine judges will decide whether or not to allow the antitrust case to be heard by a District Court. The permission from five of the nine judges are needed for the case to proceed, and currently, it looks like only Chief Justice John Roberts is siding with the iGiant.

For Apple, this case could be a disaster. Permission to take the case to one of the District Courts, likely to be in one of the thirty states where the Attorney General is backing the iPhone users’ antitrust claims, and the door could be opened. Essentially anyone who has purchased an app from the App Store could claim grievances against Apple.

The case itself is relatively simple on the surface. As the App Store is the only place to download apps without breaking rules, should the 30% commission charged by Apple be viewed as the company unjustly profiting from a monopoly? One could argue prices are inflated due to the commission received by Apple, though its own counter-argument is based on legal precedent which dictates only those who have a direct billing relationship with a company can sue the firm.

In the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, the court stated only consumers who are direct purchasers of a product can bring a lawsuit seeking damages available for violations of federal antitrust laws. As customer purchase apps from developers, who in turn pay Apple the commission, Apple has argued there is no legal basis for iPhone users to sue the company, with the developers being the only ones who could make such claims. Chief Justice Roberts believes this argument, though spectators of the case have stated five of the judges are leaning the other direction. This could well develop into a very serious headache before too long.

On the other side of the aisle, the iPhone users, led by chief plaintiff Robert Pepper, argue prices would be lower if there were greater choices of app stores. This is a perfectly logical conclusion, though the developers might not like it. As it stands they have a captive audience with all iPhone users in one marketplace. Yes, they do have to pay Apple a premium, but this might well be a pill worth swallowing compared to the complications of working with multiple partners and a disaggregated audience.

As with many lawsuits in the digital economy, this is the first time such arguments are being considered by the courts. Precedent will be set which is what makes this case particularly interesting. Should the courts side with the iPhone users, the doors could be opened for lawsuits against other eCommerce giants such as Amazon or Facebook. Anyone who takes a commission based on a percentage could be viewed as falsely inflating prices in the pursuit of profit, or so the argument would be.

Apple has argued opening this door could stifle the growth of the burgeoning eCommerce sector, which is a negative consequence of course, but not an adequate reason for the case to be dismissed. Just because there is significant consequence does not mean unjust activities should be allowed to continue.

The App Store has started to generate some considerable income for Apple. On the financial side of things, over the last three months the services division, which include the App Store, produced revenues of $9.9 billion, up 17% year-on-year. With smartphone growth slowing globally, and the iPhone not proving the success some might have hoped in emerging markets, the services segment will become ever more important to the iChief.

A decision on whether the case can be heard by one of the District Courts will be made in the near future, though there will be quite a few eye balls on this one. The splash could be quite considerable for Apple, though the ripples through the rest of the digital ecosystem will be just as concerning.