Saturday, October 24, 2020

Epic Games ignores Apple's property rights and technical contributions as it reinforces motion for judgment on pleadings against counterclaims

Before I talk about Epic Games' latest filing in the antitrust dispute with Apple in the Northern District of California, here's a follow-up to what I posted one month ago when I wrote that the political clout of the newly-founded Coalition for App Fairness (Epic Games, Spotify, the Tinder company, and others) would depend on its ability to attract more members. This week, the CAF announced the addition of 20 members, and claimed that more than 400 other app developers have applied for membership. The names of the would-be members awaiting approval of their request to join aren't known, so I can't tell how credible and significant they are.

There are at least a couple of shady ones among those who have been allowed to join. It appears that Prepear's real issue with Apple is a trademark dispute, and I think Apple made a reasonable and responsible decision when it disallowed Eristica's "challenge" system as such challenges can indeed be quite dangerous.

But at least the majority of the CAF's members appear legit. Should this group continue to grow at a similar pace, it may at some point be in a position to claim that there's widespread disagreement with Apple's App Store and Google's Google Play business terms. A few dozen companies can't claim to speak for those who make millions of apps--but Apple will have to keep an eye on the CAF's momentum going forward because at some point it could become an influential organization and lend credence to Epic's and Spotify's narrative.

Now, on to Epic's latest court filing (this post continues below the document):

20-10-23 Epic Games' Re... by Florian Mueller

In order to eliminate the risk of punitive damages, Epic seeks to limit the dispute with Apple to an antitrust case if Epic wins and a contract dispute in case Epic's antitrust claims don't succeed. For that purpose, Epic brought a motion for judgment on the pleadings (somewhere between a motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment) against Apple's non-contract counterclaims, which Apple opposes. Late on Friday, Epic filed the above reply brief in support of that motion.

Philosophically, Epic Games v. Apple is in no small part about the relative value of the contribution each party makes to, for instance, Fortnite's commercial success on iOS. While it's obvious that there wouldn't be a Fortnite on iOS without Epic or without Apple, either party's counsel is now trying to convince the court that their respective client is the more important contributor. And that leads them to paint a self-centric picture.

Last month I agreed with famous and vocal iOS app developer Marco Arment that Apple shouldn't reduce to its 30% commission the value that we developers (my next title is slightly delayed, but we'll apply for TestFlight beta distribution in a matter of days) add to iOS. But the introductory part of Epic's latest filing makes a very one-sided statement: "Consumers who choose to make in-app purchases in Fortnite pay for Epic's creativity,innovation and effort—to enjoy an experience that Epic has designed." The fact of the matter is that Epic is standing on the shoulders of giants; Fortnite does not exist in a vacuum; and without the mobile revolution (which the iPhone sparked), app developers would today have fewer viable platform options.

The question of what actually belongs to Apple is relevant to certain counterclaims Apple brought against Epic. Apple wants to hold Epic responsible for having defrauded its app reviewers by sneaking a prohibited alternative payment system past the review process, and Epic argues that Apple isn't entitled to anything other than what Epic owes on a contractual basis. Apple, however, argues that only because it's protected itself against fraudulent acts through contractual provisions doesn't mean it doesn't have claims against Epic under tort law. Epic acknowledges that a breach and a tort can co-exist, but insists that the tortious act must be "independently wrongful." And that is, in my opinion, ultimately a question of whether one takes Epic's perspective, which is that they have every right to provide apps to iOS users and it's just Apple that restricts this right by uniterally imposing contract terms, or whether one primarily views Apple's App Store and the iOS platform as Apple's property, giving Apple the right to decide which apps become available via the App Store (and, therefore, to review those apps).

The "property" question is even more central to Apple's "conversion" claim (the civil law equivalent of theft). Epic argues that it's not theft to take money from Fortnite users on iOS, as opposed to "stealing cash from a vault in Apple Park, or raiding Apple's bank account."

My feeling is that the part about defrauding the app review process is not ripe for decision at this point; some of what Epic says may be valid, but not sufficient to defeat the counterclaims at this early stage. Conversion, which requires a possessory interest, may be ripe for judgment.

As for the question of whether Epic's offering an alternative payment mechanism (which Epic did in order "to illustrate that competition could exist on iOS, and that consumers would welcome and benefit from it") constitutes interference with Apple's customer relationships, Epic points to a passage in Apple's agreement with end users (Apple Media Services Terms and Conditions) that says "Apple acts as an agent for App Providers in providing the App Store and is not a party to the sales contract or user agreement between you and the App Provider." On that basis, Epic describes itself as the "principal" in the relationship with end users, and Apple as an "agent" at best and "an outright non-party" at worst. However, iOS users have a relationship with Apple that goes beyond Fortnite.

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