The Justice Department probing Apple and five major US publishers over alleged price fixing of electronic books

The Wall Street Journal reports that the United States Justice Department threatened to launch an antitrust lawsuit against Apple and five of the nation’s biggest book publishers over an alleged price-fixing that has resulted in higher prices of e-books.

Several of the parties have held talks to settle the antitrust case and head off a potentially damaging court battle. If successful, such a settlement could have wide-ranging repercussions for the industry, potentially leading to cheaper e-books for consumers. However, not every publisher is in settlement discussions.

The government is specifically aiming to probe CBS Corp.’s Simon & Schuster Inc., Lagardere SCA’s Hachette Book Group, Pearson PLC’s Penguin Group (USA), Macmillan, a unit of Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH, and HarperCollins Publishers Inc., a unit of News Corp. that also owns The Wall Street Journal.

At question: The so-called agency model where publishers freely set prices of their titles on Apple’s iBookstore before the Cupertino company reaps 30 percent of the proceeds. The freedom to pick the price has led most—if not all— publishers to allegedly raise prices of e-books across the board as they feared customers would get accustomed to inexpensive $9.99 Kindle books from Amazon.

Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch already gave a deposition to the U.S. Justice Department. He said abandoning the agency model would allow a single party to achieve dominance in the marketplace, alluding to Amazon. According to the people familiar with the matter, the U.S. Justice Department believes that Apple and the publishers “acted in concert to raise prices across the industry, and is prepared to sue them for violating federal antitrust laws.”

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