Digital downloads and the DoJ

Ever wondered why digital music – the legal kind, that is – costs so much? After all, at 99 cents a song, you wind up paying the same amount for all the songs on a compact disc as if you had bought the CD in a regular store. You might have blamed iTunes for that, since it was the first to make a big splash in the market, and is now the undisputed leader. But Apple CEO Steve Jobs has actually been doing his best to keep prices low, since the the major record labels (there used to be five but now there are only four) want to crank them up. That position seems to have set off some alarm bells in anti-trust circles, since it smacks of collusion.

Crusading New York attorney and gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer started looking into the practice late last year, and now the U.S. Department of Justice has said it is investigating too. “The Antitrust Division is looking at the possibility of anti-competitive practices in the music download industry,” Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona said, without providing any further details. Several of the major labels have already reportedly received subpoenas.

This isn’t the first time the major record labels have been investigated for collusion or price-fixing. The Federal Trade Commission looked into similar allegations involving old-fashioned CD sales, and the case was eventually settled with a financial payment from the record companies. According to the complaint, the labels kept prices high by preventing Wal-Mart and other retailers from lowering prices, and by doing so they overcharged music buyers by almost $500-million (U.S.). As part of the settlement, the labels paid $67-million in cash and gave $76-million worth of CDs to the states that filed suit for use in schools and libraries.

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