Re-Framing Windows: The Durable Meaning of the Microsoft Antitrust Litigation

84 Pages Posted: 10 Dec 2006

See all articles by Harry First

Harry First

New York University School of Law

Andrew I. Gavil

Howard University School of Law


The success, failure, and durable meaning of major antitrust cases often turn on how they are framed before the courts and the public. In the Microsoft monopolization litigation, the government plaintiffs framed the case as one in which Microsoft sought to extinguish the threat to its Windows monopoly with a comprehensive strategy of using monopoly power to exclude potential rivals, rather than succeeding through superior products. In decided contrast, Microsoft argued that the government plaintiffs, acting at the behest of losing competitors, were attempting to interfere with a dynamic and continually evolving industry, one in which Microsoft actually faced potent competitive threats.

For a time the plaintiffs' narrative was ascendant. The narrative began to lose ground, however, when a new administration took office in Washington and settled the case on terms that were unlikely to bring competition to the market in which Microsoft had improperly maintained its monopoly. The re-framing of the Windows case was underway.

In this article we trace the reframing process. We begin by reviewing the original trial and appellate court decisions, upholding the core of the plaintiffs' case. We show how the seeds for reframing, planted in the court of appeals' decision, were subsequently used by the Justice Department to justify a settlement. We then review the settlement decree's administration to demonstrate how disappointing its results have been. Indeed, the government that once prosecuted Microsoft has now come full circle to defend many of Microsoft's core business strategies and to criticize antitrust enforcement agencies elsewhere in the world that are still attempting to stop Microsoft's exclusionary conduct. As Microsoft has been reframed, the case has thus become a vehicle for redirecting antitrust doctrine and enforcement away from the problems of monopoly, especially in the new economy, in part by demeaning the value of government antitrust enforcement.

The history of the public prosecution of Microsoft reminds us that major monopolization cases are important to bring but politically difficult to manage to successful conclusion. If the effort to reframe the Microsoft case succeeds, our concern is that the already limited public power available to pursue private power in the public interest will be circumscribed and the historic role of the government to challenge competition-related abuses of private power may be crippled.

Suggested Citation

First, Harry and Gavil, Andrew I., Re-Framing Windows: The Durable Meaning of the Microsoft Antitrust Litigation. Utah Law Review, 2006, NYU Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 06-39, NYU Law and Economics Research Paper No. 06-55, Available at SSRN:

Harry First (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

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Andrew I. Gavil

Howard University School of Law ( email )

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