European Commission raids eBook publishers on suspicion of cartel

The European Commission has confirmed “unannounced inspections” in the eBook publishing sector in several European countries related to suspicions that said companies have “violated EU antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and other restrictive business practices.”

This is a pretty big deal, although the EC – for obvious reasons – is keen to stress that an investigation doesn’t imply guilt and that this is “preliminary.” It also follows a similar investigation opened last month by the UK’s own Office of Fair Trading after several complaints were received from consumers.

EBook pricing is, of course, a contentious issue, with the perception being that like any digital media, production and distribution of the copy itself is far less than its physical counterpart and therefore prices should be lower. But in the eBook sector this is often far from the case with publishers keen to protect the old model of hardback (early adopter) and paperback pricing as well as ensure that they don’t seed control to giants like Amazon, for example, in the same way that the recording industry did with Apple’s iTunes.

Here’s the full EC statement:

The European Commission can confirm that on 1 March 2011 Commission officials initiated unannounced inspections at the premises of companies that are active in the e-book (electronic or digital books) publishing sector in several Member States. The Commission has reason to believe that the companies concerned may have violated EU antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and other restrictive business practices (Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).

The Commission officials were accompanied by their counterparts from the relevant national competition authorities.

Unannounced inspections are a preliminary step into suspected anticompetitive practices. The fact that the Commission carries out such inspections does not mean that the companies are guilty of anti-competitive behaviour nor does it prejudge the outcome of the investigation itself. The Commission respects the rights of defence, in particular the right of companies to be heard in antitrust proceedings.

There is no legal deadline to complete inquiries into anticompetitive conduct. Their duration depends on a number of factors, including the complexity of each case, the extent to which the undertakings concerned co-operate with the Commission and the exercise of the rights of defence.