Apple on trial: Decade-old iTunes suit will be heard in court

A suit against Apple, originally brought in 2005, will finally be heard in a California district court this week. Steve Jobs will appear in a video deposition in the trial, which will focus on Apple's early dominance in the online music marketplace.

Shizuo Kambayashia/AP/File
A decade-old lawsuit alleging that Apple monopolized online music sales in the early days of the iTunes Store will go to trial this week. Here, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs speaks during a launch event for the iTunes service in 2005.

It’s been years since Apple started offering DRM-free music on the iTunes Store, allowing customers to play downloaded songs on whatever applications and devices they choose. But prior to 2009, music downloaded from iTunes could only be played in Apple's iTunes application, or on an iPod or iPhone. Furthermore, there was a time when iPods could not play songs downloaded from places other than the iTunes store.

Several Californians started a class-action lawsuit accusing Apple of monopolizing online music -- and after nearly a decade of filings and delays, the suit is heading to trial this week.

The suit is making news because of the role Steve Jobs, Apple’s late co-founder, will play in the trial. The plaintiffs hope to show that Mr. Jobs, for all his genius, was not above blocking competitors and bullying other companies in order to make the iTunes Store the biggest source for online music.

For example, Brian X. Chen reports in The New York Times that, in 2003, Jobs had his eye on rival service MusicMatch, writing an e-mail to Apple executives that read in part, “We need to make sure that when Music Match launches their download music store they cannot use iPod. Is this going to be an issue?”

Jobs’ e-mails will play a big role in the trial. He was infamous for threatening to sue opponents, and for promising huge financial incentives for those who agreed to partner with Apple. The founder himself will reportedly appear in a video deposition, recorded before his death in 2011, in which he discusses Apple’s approach to the iTunes Store and what he saw as the company’s role in the online music marketplace.

The plaintiffs are asking for $350 million from Apple for its alleged anticompetitive behavior. That amount would be a drop in the bucket for the tech giant, which made a profit of $8.5 billion last quarter, but all the same Apple lawyers have been fighting the suit for years.

The US District Court for the Northern District of California has refused to throw out the case, but agreed to dismiss some of the original claims in the suit. The complaint, made in 2005, shows just how far the online music marketplace has come in the past decade. It mentions once-ascendant competitors such as Napster, Music Rebellion, and Audio Lunchbox; frets about the now-bankrupt Tower Records; and references music players from companies such as Epson and Gateway.

The case will begin on Tuesday, and will be heard by District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers.

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