The Court of Justice of the European Union (‘CJEU’) has today handed down Advocate General Wahl’s opinion in the Coty Germany reference proceedings (see press release here, the full opinion should be published later today). The press release explains that the Opinion proposes that the European Court find that a supplier of luxury goods may prohibit its authorised retailers from selling its products on third-party platforms such as Amazon and EBay. For the background to the case see our earlier post here.
The Opinion begins by restating that selective distribution systems for luxury and prestige products do not necessarily fall within the prohibition of anticompetitive agreements under Article 101(1) if they meet three well-established criteria:
1. the resellers are chosen on the basis of objective criteria of a qualitative nature which are determined uniformly for all and applied in a non-discriminatory manner for all potential resellers,
2. the nature of the product in question, including the prestige image, requires selective distribution in order to preserve the quality of the product and to ensure that it is correctly used, and
3. the criteria established do not go beyond what is necessary.
AG Wahl then goes on to deal with the restriction which is at the centre of this dispute, namely a provision which prohibits the authorised sellers from using third party platforms for internet sales “in a discernible manner”. He states that – in the present state of development of e-commerce – such a restriction does not necessarily fall within Article 101(1) where three criteria are met. However, it seems to us that the criteria he lists is merely a restatement of the well-established criteria for lawful selective distribution set out above, i.e. that the criteria:
1. are dependent on the nature of the product,
2. are determined in a uniform fashion and applied without distinction, and
3. do not go beyond what is necessary.
The assessment of the facts will ultimately be left to the German Court. However, AG Wahl does observe that the contested clause does not appear to be caught by Article 101(1). In fact, he suggests that the restriction is likely to improve competition by ensuring the products are sold in an environment that meets the qualitative criteria and guarding against the phenomena of “parasitism” (a more loaded term than the usual reference to ‘free-riding’). He points out that the restriction does not amount to an absolute prohibition on online sales (which is considered a serous restriction of competition) for two reasons. First, the restriction still allows authorised distributors to sell through their own websites and to make use of third party platforms “in a non-discernible manner”. Second, distributors’ own online stores are still the preferred distribution channel so such a restriction cannot be assimilated to an outright ban or substantial restriction on internet sales. This analysis leaves a number of questions open, and certainly suggests that the analysis of such restrictions may change if the popularity of third party platforms continues to grow.
Finally, the Opinion proposes that, in the event that a restriction on third party platforms does fall within Article 101(1), it may well be exempted under Article 101(3), including under the block exemption for vertical agreements. AG Wahl does not consider a third party platform ban to be a hardcore restriction which would automatically exclude the relevant distribution agreement from the benefit of the block exemption.
Overall, the AG Opinion appears to be in line with the Commission’s recent final report in its e-commerce sector inquiry, which recognised that price is not the only relevant competition consideration when selling goods online: “While price is a key parameter of competition between retailers, quality, brand image and innovation are important in the competition between brands. Incentivising innovation and quality, and keeping control over the image and positioning of their brand are of major importance for most manufacturers to help them ensure the viability of their business in the mid to long term.” The AG Opinion is a first step in showing how this balance may in future be struck – although crucially the Opinion is not binding on the CJEU who will now begin its deliberations in this case. The final word on these issues will be left to the European Court, and this will no doubt be keenly awaited by brand owners, online retailers and third party platforms alike.