Article 101 TFEU prohibits agreements which have as their object or effect the restriction of competition. Article 101(3) TFEU provides, subject to certain conditions, for agreements which improve the distribution of products or contribute to promoting economic progress to be granted an individual exemption. In addition, various regulations provide that certain categories of agreements may qualify for a block exemption. One of those regulations, the Vertical Agreement Block Exemption Regulation, provides such an exemption for distribution agreements which meet certain conditions. However, that regulation contains a list of agreements which may not benefit from a block exemption.
Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmétique (“PFDC”) is one of the companies in the Pierre Fabre group. It manufactures and markets cosmetics and personal care products and has several subsidiaries, including, inter alia, the Klorane, Ducray, Galénic and Avène laboratories, whose cosmetic and personal care products are sold, under those brands, mainly through pharmacists, on both the French and the European markets.
The products in question are not classified as medicines and are, therefore, not covered by the pharmacists’ monopoly laid down by French law. However, distribution contracts for those products in respect of the Klorane, Ducray, Galénic and Avène brands stipulate that sales must be made exclusively in a physical space and in the presence of a qualified pharmacist, thereby restricting in practice all forms of internet selling.
In October 2008, following an investigation, the Autorité de la concurrence (French Competition Authority) decided that, owing to the de facto ban on all internet sales, PFDC’s distribution agreements amounted to anti-competitive agreements contrary to both French law and European Union competition law. The Competition Authority found that the ban on internet selling necessarily had as its object the restriction of competition and could not benefit from a block exemption. The Authority also decided that the agreements could not benefit from an individual exemption either.
PFDC challenged that decision before the Cour d’appel de Paris (France), which has asked the Court of Justice whether a general and absolute ban on internet selling amounts to a restriction of competition “by object”, whether such an agreement may benefit from a block exemption and whether, where the block exemption is inapplicable, the agreement may benefit from an individual exemption under Article 101(3) TFEU.
In its Judgment in Case C-439/09 Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmétique SAS v Président de l’Autorité de la Concurrence and Others, the European Court of Justice recalls that in order to assess whether a contractual clause involves a restriction of competition “by object”, regard must be had to the content of the clause, the objectives it seeks to attain and the economic and legal context of which it forms a part.
As regards agreements constituting a selective distribution system, the Court has already stated that such agreements necessarily affect competition in the common market. Such agreements are to be considered, in the absence of objective justification, as “restrictions by object”. However, a selective distribution system is compatible with European Union law to the extent that resellers are chosen on the basis of objective criteria of a qualitative nature, laid down uniformly for all potential resellers and not applied in a discriminatory fashion, that the characteristics of the product in question necessitate such a distribution network in order to preserve the product’s quality and ensure its proper use, and, finally, that the criteria laid down do not go beyond what is necessary.
After recalling that it is for the referring court to examine whether a contractual clause which de facto prohibits all forms of internet selling can be justified by a legitimate aim, the Court provides the referring court for that purpose with guidance on the interpretation of European Union law to enable it to reach a decision.
Thus, the Court points out that, in the light of the freedoms of movement, it has not accepted – as it has already stated in the context of the sale of non-prescription medicines and contact lenses – arguments relating to the need to provide individual advice to the customer and to ensure his protection against the incorrect use of products, put forward to justify a ban on internet sales. Similarly, the Court rules that the need to maintain the prestigious image of PFDC’s products is not a legitimate aim for restricting competition.
As to whether a selective distribution contract may benefit from a block exemption, the Court recalls that the exemption does not apply to vertical agreements which have as their object the restriction of active or passive sales to end users by members of a selective distribution system operating at the retail level of trade. A contractual clause which de facto prohibits the internet as a method of marketing at the very least has as its object the restriction of passive sales to end users wishing to purchase online and located outside the physical trading area of the relevant member of the selective distribution system. Consequently, the block exemption does not apply to that contract.
However, such a contract may benefit, on an individual basis, from the exception provided for in Article 101(3) TFEU, if the referring court finds that the conditions laid down in that provision are met.
The European Commission has adopted a Regulation (see Commission Regulation (EU) No 330/2010 of 20 April 2010 on the application of Article 101(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to categories of vertical agreements and concerted practices) block exempting agreements between manufacturers and distributors for the sale of products and services.
The Regulation and accompanying Guidelines take into account the development, in the last 10 years, of the Internet as a force for online sales and for cross-border commerce, something that the Commission wants to promote as it increases consumer choice and price competition.
The basic principle remains that companies are free to decide how their products are distributed, provided their agreements do not contain price-fixing or other hardcore restrictions, and both manufacturer and distributor do not have more than a 30% market share. Approved distributors are free to sell on the Internet without limitation on quantities, customers’ location and restrictions on prices.
The new rules introduce the same 30% market share threshold for distributors and retailers to take into account the fact that some buyers may also have market power with potentially negative effects on competition. This change is beneficial for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s), whether manufacturers or retailers, which could otherwise be excluded from the distribution market.
This does not mean agreements between companies with higher market shares are illegal. Only that they must assess whether their agreements contain restrictive clauses and, whether they would be justified.
The new rules also specifically, address the question of online sales. Once authorised, distributors shall be free to sell on their websites as they do in their traditional shops and physical points of sale. For selective distribution, this means that manufacturers cannot limit the quantities sold over the Internet or charge higher prices for products to be sold online. The Guidelines further clarify the concepts of “active” and “passive” sales for exclusive distribution. Terminating transactions or re-routing consumers after they have entered their credit card details showing a foreign address will not be accepted.
With the new rules in force, dealers will now have a clear basis and incentives to develop online activities to reach, and be reached, by customers throughout the EU and fully take advantage of the internal market.
The new rules will come into force on 1 June 2010 and will be valid until 2022, with a one-year transitional phase.