Publishers urge EU to close e-books probe

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Apple and four international publishers have sent proposals to the European Commission to try to solve an e-books anti-trust case, a Commission statement said yesterday (11 April).

The four publishers are Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette Livre and Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck and their proposed commitments follow a settlement involving three of the four in the United States on Wednesday.

Joaquín Almunia, the EU's competition commissioner, said he welcomed the proposals for an early resolution and was engaged in "fruitful discussions" with the companies.

Their suggestions would need to be assessed by "third-parties" before they could be accepted, he said.

The Commission launched an anti-trust case against the five publishers on 6 December 2011 to determine whether the companies were colluding to raise the retail price of e-books.

Pearson Plc's Penguin group was not mentioned among those submitting proposals and the statement only said the investigation into the firm was ongoing.

If the Commission accepts the publishers' concessions, then the probe would be closed unless the companies fail to honor their agreements, in which case they can face a fine of up to 10% of annual turnover.

Three of these publishers – Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Hachette – have also reached a settlement with the US Department of Justice.

The Justice Department and the European Commission have been trying to unravel agreements Apple secured with publishers two years ago, when the Silicon Valley company was launching its iPad.

In some markets, e-books are showing dramatic growth rates. In Britain, the market share of e-book sales doubled in one year and is supposed to triple by 2015, Commission figures show.

In March 2011, the Commission carried out unannounced inspections at the premises of several companies active in the e-book publishing sector in several member states (see Commission memo).

In December 2011, the EU executive launched an investigation into potential price fixing between e-book publishers and Apple, to examine whether rival publishers were blocked or consumers harmed.

To date, the Commission and the UK Office of Fair Trading have investigated in parallel and in close cooperation whether arrangements for the sale of e-books may breach competition rules.

Before the Commission opened formal proceedings, the OFT had closed its investigation on grounds of administrative priority. The OFT has made a substantial contribution to the e-books investigation and will continue to co-operate closely with the Commission going forward.

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