147 F.3d 935 (D.C. Cir. 1998), 97-5343, United States v. Microsoft Corp.

Docket Nº:97-5343 and 98-5012.
Citation:147 F.3d 935
Party Name:41 Fed.R.Serv.3d 216 UNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. MICROSOFT CORPORATION, Appellant.
Case Date:June 23, 1998
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

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147 F.3d 935 (D.C. Cir. 1998)

41 Fed.R.Serv.3d 216

UNITED STATES of America, Appellee,



Nos. 97-5343 and 98-5012.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

June 23, 1998

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Argued April 21, 1998.

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[331 U.S.App.D.C. 124] Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 94cv01564).

Richard J. Urowsky, argued the cause, for appellant. With him on the brief were John L. Warden, Steven L. Holley, Richard C. Pepperman, II, Andrew C. Hruska, James R. Weiss, William H. Neukom and David A. Heiner, Jr.

A. Douglas Melamed, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause, for appellee. With him on the briefs were Joel I. Klein, Assistant Attorney General, Catherine G. O'Sullivan and Mark S. Popofsky, Attorneys.

Daniel E. Lungren, Attorney General of California, James E. Ryan, Attorney General of Illinois, Carla J. Stovall, Attorney General of Kansas, J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, Scott Harshbarger, Attorney General, for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, Attorney General of Missouri, Joseph P. Mazurek, Attorney General of Montana, Frankie Sue Del Papa, Attorney General of Nevada, Tom Udall, Attorney General of New Mexico, and W.A. Drew Edmondson, Attorney General of Oklahoma, members of the Bar of this Court, were on the brief of certain States as amici curiae, with whom appeared the various other Attorneys General of the participating States.

Before: WALD, WILLIAMS and RANDOLPH, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge WILLIAMS.

Opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part filed by Circuit Judge WALD.


The district court entered a preliminary injunction prohibiting Microsoft Corporation from requiring computer manufacturers who license its operating system software to license its internet browser as well. In granting the preliminary injunction the court also referred the government's motion for a permanent injunction to a special master. Microsoft appeals the preliminary injunction and applies for a writ of mandamus revoking the reference to a master. We find that the district court erred procedurally in entering a preliminary injunction without notice to Microsoft and substantively in its implicit construction of the consent decree on which the preliminary injunction rested. We also grant the petition for mandamus and direct the district court to revoke or revise its reference.


This case arises from Microsoft's practices in marketing its Windows 95 operating system. An operating system is, so to speak, the central nervous system of the computer, controlling the computer's interaction with peripherals such as keyboards and printers. Windows 95 is an operating system that integrates a DOS shell with a graphical user interface, i.e., a technology by which the operator performs functions not by typing at the keyboard but by clicks of his mouse. Operating systems also serve as "platforms" for application software such as word processors. As the word "platform" suggests, the operating system provides a basic support structure for an application via "application programming interfaces" ("APIs"),

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[331 U.S.App.D.C. 125] which provide general functions on which applications can rely. Each operating system's APIs are unique; hence applications tend to be written for particular operating systems. The primary market for operating systems consists of original equipment manufacturers ("OEMs"), which make computers, install operating systems and other software that they have licensed from vendors such as Microsoft, and sell the package to end users. These may be either individual consumers or businesses.

In an earlier opinion, also arising from litigation generated by the Justice Department's 1994 antitrust suit against Microsoft, we briefly described Microsoft's role in the software industry and some of the industry's economics. United States v. Microsoft Corp., 56 F.3d 1448, 1451-52 (D.C.Cir.1995). Because IBM chose to install Microsoft's operating system on its personal computers, Microsoft acquired an "installed base" on millions of IBM and IBM-compatible PCs. That base constituted an exceptional advantage, and created exceptional risks of monopoly, because of two characteristics of the software industry--increasing returns to scale and network externalities. First, because most of the costs of software lie in the design, marginal production costs are negligible. Production of additional units appears likely to lower average costs indefinitely. (I.e., the average cost curve never turns upward.) Second, an increase in the number of users of a particular item of software increases the number of other people with whom any user can share work. As a result, Microsoft's large installed base increases the incentive for independent software vendors to write compatible applications and thereby increases the value of its operating system to consumers.

The Department's 1994 complaint alleged a variety of anticompetitive practices, chiefly in Microsoft's licensing agreements with OEMs. Along with it, the Department filed a proposed consent decree limiting Microsoft's behavior, the product of negotiations between Microsoft, the Department and European competition authorities. Most relevant here is § IV(E) of the decree:

Microsoft shall not enter into any License Agreement in which the terms of that agreement are expressly or impliedly conditioned upon:

(i) the licensing of any other Covered Product, Operating System Software product or other product (provided, however, that this provision in and of itself shall not be construed to prohibit Microsoft from developing integrated products); or

(ii) the OEM not licensing, purchasing, using or distributing any non-Microsoft product.

The Department sees a violation of § IV(E)(i) in Microsoft's marketing of Windows 95 and its web browser, Internet Explorer ("IE").

The Internet is a global network that links smaller networks of computers. The World Wide Web ("the Web") is the fastest-growing part of the Internet, composed of multimedia "pages" written in Hypertext Markup Language ("HTML") and connected to other pages by hypertext links. Browsers enable users to navigate the Web and to access information.

Most browsers are designed according to a "multi-platform" approach, with different versions for each of a variety of different operating systems. Joint Appendix ("J.A.") 81. Browsers also have the potential to serve as user interfaces and as platforms for applications (which could then be written for the APIs of a particular browser rather than of a particular operating system 1), providing some of the traditional functions of an operating system. Widespread use of multi-platform browsers as user interfaces has some potential to reduce any monopoly-increasing effects of network externalities in the operating system market. Browsers can enable the user to access applications stored on the

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[331 U.S.App.D.C. 126] Internet or local networks, or to operate applications that are independent of the operating system. J.A. 103-05.

Microsoft has developed successive versions of IE, the first of which was initially released with Windows 95 in July 1995. Microsoft's Windows 95 license agreements have required OEMs to accept and install the software package as sent to them by Microsoft, including IE, and have prohibited OEMs from removing any features or functionality, i.e., capacity to perform functions such as browsing. J.A. 86-89.

The first three versions of IE were actually included on the Windows 95 "master" disk supplied to OEMs. Department Br. at 4; J.A. 1277-78. IE 4.0, by contrast, was initially distributed on a separate CD-ROM and OEMs were not required to install it. Microsoft intended to start requiring OEMs to preinstall IE 4.0 as part of Windows 95 in February 1998. On learning of Microsoft's plans, the Department became concerned that this practice violated § IV(E)(i) by effectively conditioning the license for Windows 95 on the license for IE 4.0, creating (in its view) what antitrust law terms a "tie-in" between the operating system and the browser. 2 (It is not clear why extension of Microsoft's established IE policy to IE 4.0 aroused the Department's concern.) It filed a petition seeking to hold Microsoft in civil contempt for its practices with respect to IE 3.0, and requesting "further" that the court explicitly order Microsoft not to employ similar agreements with respect to any version of IE.

A party seeking to hold another in contempt faces a heavy burden, needing to show by "clear and convincing evidence" that the alleged contemnor has violated a "clear and unambiguous" provision of the consent decree. Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President, 1 F.3d 1274, 1289 (D.C.Cir.1993). Finding § IV(E)(i) ambiguous, the district court denied the Department's contempt petition. But that left open the possibility that Microsoft's practices might in fact violate the consent decree (though not so clearly as to justify contempt), and the district court continued the proceedings in order to answer that question, appointing a special master not only to oversee discovery but also to propose findings of fact and conclusions of law. For the meantime, the court entered a preliminary injunction forbidding Microsoft

from the practice of licensing the use of any Microsoft personal computer operating system software (including Windows 95 or any successor version thereof) on the condition, express or implied, that the licensee also...

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