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U.S. judge dismisses antitrust lawsuits over college textbooks

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A U.S. judge on Monday dismissed antitrust lawsuits accusing the dominant on-campus bookstore chains and college textbook publishers of conspiring to eliminate competition and raise prices by using agreements to sell course materials online, known as “Inclusive Access.”

U.S. District Judge Denise Cote in Manhattan rejected claims by undergraduate and graduate students, independent bookstores and online textbook sellers against Barnes & Noble Education (BNED.N), Follett Higher Education Group, and the publishers Cengage Learning, McGraw Hill and Pearson Education (PSON.L).

Inclusive Access requires students to buy one-time access codes for purchases of online textbooks, which typically cost less than new hardcopy textbooks but more than used textbooks.

The defendants were accused of using the program to monopolize the more than $3 billion annual market for new textbooks, boosting prices for hundreds of thousands of students while suppressing demand for used textbooks.

In two decisions totaling 94 pages, Cote said none of the proposed classes of plaintiffs showed a conspiracy to suppress competition, though some defendants might have joined Inclusive Access because it was innovative or served their financial interests.

She also said the independent bookstores and online textbook sellers lacked standing to sue because it was the adoption by hundreds of colleges and universities of digital textbooks, rather than the defendants' conduct, that hurt their sales.

"Any injury to the plaintiffs is due to the institutions selecting brick-and-mortar retailers other than the plaintiffs as their on-campus bookstores," the judge wrote.

Lawyers for the students did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Bruce Steckler, a lawyer for the independent bookstores and online sellers, declined to comment.

The case is In re Inclusive Access Course Materials Antitrust Litigation, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 20-md-02946.

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