Thursday, September 16, 2021

Fortnite and In-App Purchases, Continued

Last year, I posted about Epic Games’ lawsuit against Apple, which claimed that Apple’s tight control over apps for iOs devices, particularly Apple’s in-app purchase system, violated antitrust and unfair competition laws. Now, a bit over a year later and after extensive coverage in technology and gaming circles, a judge in the Northern District of California has ruled on the merits of the case. The opinion is a mixed bag, as the court found in favor of Apple on most points but in favor of Epic on one claim; the court declined to find that Apple has an unlawful monopoly, but did find that Apple’s conduct in prohibiting app developers from providing information to consumers about payment alternatives was anticompetitive. While the ruling is narrow, it does open the door for mobile gaming developers to potentially avoid Apple’s commission on in-app purchases.

Taking the good news (at least for independent app developers) first, the court issued a nationwide injunction preventing Apple from prohibiting developers from including information in their apps and consumer communications regarding alternative purchasing mechanisms in addition to Apple’s proprietary in-app purchase system. This is potentially a very financially significant step, as Apple was previously requiring that developers of apps in its App Store only use Apple’s payment system for in-app purchases and was taking a commission of up to 30% on all such purchases. Now, developers will be able to inform customers about alternative channels to make these purchases, avoiding Apple’s commission, without being prevented from offering their app for download on the App Store. Consumers spend a massive amount of money on in-app purchases; one source estimates that consumers spent $32 billion on in-app purchases via the App Store and Google Play just in the first quarter of 2021. Many apps rely on in-app purchases for their profitability, and doubtless many developers will be very interested in avoiding Apple’s 30% commission, if possible.

As for Epic’s unsuccessful antitrust claim, a large part of the arguments turned on defining the “market” within which Apple was allegedly a monopolist. While somewhat technical, this fundamental struggle to define the relevant market goes to show how emerging technology does not necessarily fit easily within the boundaries of traditional legal or commercial analysis. Apple argued that the relevant market was the entire digital gaming market (featuring some interesting conceptual discussion of what, exactly, is a “video game”), whereas Epic argued that the relevant market was the market of all mobile apps running in the iOs ecosystem. The court disagreed with both, finding that the relevant market was that of “mobile gaming transactions.”

While this market may seem to be very narrow, the court noted that the “mobile gaming market itself is a $100 billion industry.” In fact, 70% of Apple’s App Store revenue was estimated to come from gaming apps as compared to other types of apps. The court ultimately found that Apple had about a 55% market share in digital mobile gaming transactions, with “extraordinarily high profit margins,” but that Epic had not produced enough evidence to show that Apple was a monopolist. The door appears to be cracked open for future monopoly claims against Apple, though, as the judge noted “the evidence does suggest that Apple is near the precipice of substantial market power, or monopoly power, with its considerable market share.”

For those interested in software, and particularly the mobile app market, the first part of the 185-page opinion is worth a read as it includes many interesting figures regarding consumer behavior and the app market. The Verge also has comprehensive discussion of this case for busy entrepreneurs who don’t have the time to (or interest in) reading legal opinions—especially if they aren’t suffering badly enough from insomnia to otherwise have a need to do so…

Epic has already appealed the court’s judgment to the Ninth Circuit, so this case is not over yet. It will be interesting to see whether the Ninth Circuit takes a broader view of the potential monopoly issues raised in this case and whether it agrees with the lower court that the relevant market is “digital mobile gaming transactions.” The universe of mobile apps has grown very quickly over the last decade and the legal system’s analysis will have to catch up. The fact that Epic succeeded in its challenge of Apple’s rule against developers informing consumers of alternate payment methods, however, suggests that app developers in other spheres might also start challenging the restrictions placed on them by Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store. And should Apple’s control over the market grow in the future, it’s possible that a new antitrust claim would succeed. 

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