* Apple, publishers let retailers set e-book prices for 2yrs
* Will suspend "most favoured nation" contracts for 5 years
* No infringement finding against companies, no penalties
* Amazon set to benefit from EU decision
By Foo Yun Chee
BRUSSELS, Dec 13 European Union regulators ended
an antitrust probe into e-book prices on Thursday, accepting an
offer by Apple and four publishers to ease pricing
restrictions on Amazon and other retailers.
The decision hands online retailer Amazon a victory in its
attempt to sell e-books cheaper than rivals in a fast-growing
market publishers hope will boost revenue and customer numbers.
Reuters first reported in November that the Commission was
accepting the settlement offer.
The European Commission said on Thursday the concessions
from Apple and the publishers soothed concerns that their
pricing deals curbed competition.
"The commitments proposed by Apple and the four publishers
will restore normal competitive conditions in this new and
fast-moving market, to the benefit of the buyers and readers of
e-books," EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said.
Apple and the publishers offered to let retailers set prices
or discounts for a period of two years, and also to suspend
"most-favoured nation" contracts for five years.
Such clauses bar publishers Simon & Schuster, News
Corp. unit HarperCollins, Lagardere SCA's
Hachette Livre and Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, the
owner of German company Macmillan, from making deals with rival
retailers to sell e-books more cheaply than Apple.
The agreements, which critics say prevent Amazon and other
retailers from undercutting Apple's charges, led to the EU
antitrust investigation in December last year.
Pearson Plc's Penguin group, which is also under
investigation, was not part of Thursday's settlement. The
Commission said Penguin had offered concessions expected to
resolve the matter with the competition authorities.
Companies found guilty of infringing EU rules can be fined
up to 10 percent of their global sales, which in Apple's case
could reach $15.6 billion, based on its 2012 fiscal year.
UBS analysts estimate e-books account for about 30 percent
of the U.S. book market and 20 percent of sales in Britain but
are minuscule elsewhere. Amazon charged $9.99 per book when it
launched its Kindle e-reader.
Apple's agency model let publishers set prices in return for
a 30 percent cut to the maker of iPhone and iPad.
According to Albert Greco, a professor at Fordham
University, Amazon's share of the U.S. e-book market reaches 65
percent, ahead of Barnes & Noble's 27 percent share.
HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Hachette have settled
with the U.S. Department of Justice in a similar investigation
but Apple, Penguin Group and Macmillan have not.