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Apple, Publishers Seek to End EU E-books Antitrust Probe

Apple Inc., the world’s biggest technology company, and four publishers may be able to settle a European Union probe into digital book sales similar to one that resulted in a U.S. lawsuit.

Apple, CBS Corp.’s Simon & Schuster, News Corp.’s Harper Collins, Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH’s Macmillan unit and Lagardere SCA’s Hachette Livre sent “possible commitments” to the European Commission, EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said in an e-mailed statement today. The EU will review the offers with competitors to see if they would address antitrust issues.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued Apple, Macmillan and Pearson Plc’s Penguin in New York today, claiming the publishers colluded to fix eBook prices. Simon & Schuster, Hachette and HarperCollins reached settlements with the DOJ.

“We are currently engaged in fruitful discussions with them, without prejudice to the outcome of these talks,” Almunia said. “We will assess any final proposals of commitments and we will test them with third parties in order to check whether they are sufficient to preserve competition for the benefit of consumers in this fast-growing market.”

The European Commission opened a probe into Cupertino, California-based Apple, the four publishers and Penguin in December to examine the iPad-maker’s deals with publishers and the publishers’ deals with retailers.

‘Productive Discussions’

“We are in active and productive discussions” with the EU, Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for Simon & Schuster in New York, said in an e-mail.

Penguin wasn’t mentioned in the EU statement on the possible settlement. Charles Goldsmith, a spokesman for Pearson in London, declined to immediately comment.

Tanya Ridd, a spokeswoman for Apple in London, declined to comment. Siobhan Kenny, a spokeswoman for HarperCollins in London, declined to comment because the company is still negotiating details of the settlement with regulators. Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck declined to immediately comment.

Hachette didn’t immediately respond to phone calls and e-mails.

PricewaterhouseCoopers said last year that European e-book sales have been sluggish, partly due to the small range of non-English titles and fixed price agreements between publishers and stores in 13 countries. Almunia has said he wants to fight “artificial restrictions imposed by some companies to cross-border trade” and was examining the way e-books are distributed.

Apple previously settled an EU antitrust case in 2009 by agreeing to reduce prices for U.K. iTunes music downloads and was probed over restrictions on iPhone applications in a case the EU closed last year.

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