Justia Summary

Apple sells iPhone applications (apps) directly to iPhone owners through its App Store—the only place where iPhone owners may lawfully buy apps. Most apps are created by independent developers under contracts with Apple. Apple charges the developers a $99 annual membership fee, allows them to set the retail price of the apps, and charges a 30% commission on every app sale. Four iPhone owners sued, alleging that Apple has unlawfully monopolized the aftermarket for iPhone apps. The Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the suit concluding that the owners were direct purchasers under the Supreme Court’s “Illinois Brick” precedent.

The Supreme Court affirmed. The Clayton Act provides that “any person who shall be injured in his business or property by reason of anything forbidden in the antitrust laws may sue,” 15 U.S.C. 15(a), and readily covers consumers who purchase goods or services at higher-than-competitive prices from an allegedly monopolistic retailer. While indirect purchasers who are two or more steps removed from the violator in a distribution chain may not sue, the iPhone owners are not consumers at the bottom of a vertical distribution chain who are attempting to sue manufacturers at the top of the chain. The absence of an intermediary in the distribution chain between Apple and the consumer is dispositive. The Court rejected an argument that Illinois Brick allows consumers to sue only the party who sets the retail price. Apple’s interpretation would contradict the long-standing goal of effective private enforcement and consumer protection in antitrust cases. Illinois Brick is not a get-out-of-court-free card for monopolistic retailers any time that a damages calculation might be complicated.