Technology giants like Amazon, Facebook, and Google face legal battles yearly. Recently, another behemoth has followed suit (pun intended). On August 13th, 2020, Apple found itself involved in an antitrust lawsuit against Fortnite video game creator, Epic Games. The trial began on May 3rd, 2021 and is ongoing, so this blog post will not have all the answers. As it unfolds, this post will delve into the perspectives of both businesses, describe the nature of the trial, introduce opening statements from the first day of the trial, and explain possible outcomes for both Epic Games and Apple.
Epic Games has filed an antitrust lawsuit against Apple Inc. in response to the removal of its most popular game, Fortnite, from the iPhone App Store. This prohibited 116 million of its 350 million users from updating the game and new consumers from downloading the app (this does not affect the remaining players using other smartphones or gaming consoles). Fortnite’s eradication from iOS App Stores has caused players from around the world to unite in a social media campaign called #FreeFortnite. Epic Games accused the tech giant of monopolizing purchasing options for apps by restricting other methods of conducting transactions. Due to Apple’s renowned international success, Epic Games has filed lawsuits against Apple in Australian, United Kingdom, and European courts. Epic Games not only wants Fortnite back on the iOS App Store, but it also wants to launch a rival App Store on all Apple devices so users can purchase Epic Games products through non-Apple means.
The catalyst for Fortnite’s removal from Apple’s App Store was the release of a new update by Epic Games which included the implementation of an in-game purchasing currency called “V-Bucks.” This currency allows players to buy items through non-App Store channels. Users who purchase Fortnite items such as outfits, pickaxes, and the latest season’s Battle Pass get to enjoy a 20% discount, which incentivizes players to continue using V-Bucks. Since these purchases are not made through the App Store, V-Bucks circumvents Apple’s chances of receiving its 30% share of any transaction, hence its removal from the App Store and the foundation of #FreeFortnite. In response to Epic Games’ claim of Apple becoming a monopoly, Apple explains the fairness in its decision to remove the game from its App Store. According to Apple, Epic Games violated its agreement by installing V-Bucks without Apple’s permission. If Apple wins the trial, this contract violation could keep Fortnite and all other apps made by Epic Games, or apps run by its game engine, Unreal Engine, from the App Store (The Verge).
The trial began on Monday, May 3rd, 2021 in federal court in Oakland, California. This proceeding is a bench trial; thus, the judge will be making the final ruling with no jury. The trial will be held in person and the press and public are prohibited from entering the courtroom. The presiding judge for the United States trial is Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers. Pending trial, she declined Epic Games’ request for Apple to host Fortnite on iOS devices. Trial dates for the international lawsuits against Apple are unknown. However, Epic Games has recently filed lawsuits in November 2020 (Australia), January 2021 (United Kingdom), and February 2021 (Europe).
Opening Statements and Trial Arguments (photo credits from The Verge)
In its opening statement, Epic Games compares Apple’s restrictive policies to a “Walled Garden.” Its argument is based on the unfairness of Apple’s control over purchasing options. Two expert witnesses testified on behalf of Epic Games. University of Chicago economist, Dr. David Evans, told the court, “Apple’s rules unfairly prevent developers from letting consumers know if their prices for in-app purchases take into account the iPhone maker’s 30% commission or that consumers may be able to get better deals elsewhere,” (Wall Street Journal). To add, Susan Athey, an Economics of Technology professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, explained Apple’s stronghold over consumers is due to their prohibitive iOS mobile operating system. In the case of this trial, if a consumer wanted to access Fortnite an iPhone, the user would need to switch to a different smartphone brand and repurchase all the apps originally purchased from iOS devices. Since the internet is needed to play Fortnite, Evans highlights how gaming consoles could never replace smartphones, as it lacks cellular data for users who want to play the game from anywhere.
Apple’s opening statement was a defensive response to Epic Games’ claims. According to The Wall Street Journal, Apple hired University of Pennsylvania Wharton School professor, Lorin Hitt, to discuss in-app purchases. Hitt claims, “anticompetitive measures tend to result in reduced quality, yet that hasn’t happened with iPhone and iPads apps, as developers have seen their revenue increase over time.” Essentially, consumers notice the value in the offers proposed by Apple. As noted by the graph below, Mr. Hitt also denounced Epic Games’ claim about Apple’s monopoly-like practices. Users switch devices frequently because people like the products acquired for different reasons. If this were not the case, Play Station and XBOX would not generate over 50% of Fortnite’s revenue for the last two years. This also infers that most Fortnite users are not on iOS devices, which is surprising considering there are 1.5 billion active Apple devices. In addition, Apple insists the iPhone offers multiple avenues for financial transactions. Although difficult to decipher, the second picture provided by Apple indicates that the iPhone, compared to its competitors and subsidiaries, offers three types of digital game transactions options: The App Store, Web Applications, and Purchasing on Other Platforms to play on iOS. Ultimately, Apple is arguing that its practices are not prohibitive nor remotely resemble a “Walled Garden.”
The outcome of the trial between Epic Games and Apple Inc. can end in multiple ways. One hypothetical is the verdict will resume the current situation: users could not access Fortnite on iOS devices, but other games produced by Unreal Engine will remain on Apple’s App Store. If the judge rules in favor of Epic Games, it may be able to create and launch its own App Store on iOS devices.
In addition to the trial, a new state bill that recently passed the House 31-29 may negatively impact Apple’s case. According to The Verge, Arizona’s House Bill 2005, “prevents app store operators from forcing a developer based in the state to use a preferred payment system…,” which would ultimately force Apple to provide various payment methods on iOS. This development could be beneficial for Epic Games.