NEW YORK — A federal judge approved a settlement Thursday with three major publishers in a civil antitrust case brought by the Justice Department over collusion in e-book pricing, paving the way for a war in coming months over the cost of digital books.
The judge, Denise L. Cote, rejected arguments against the settlement, saying they were insufficient to deny its approval.
In April, the government said it had filed a lawsuit against five publishers and Apple Inc., accusing them of conspiring to raise e-book prices. Three publishers — Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster Inc., and HarperCollins — agreed to settle. Penguin Group USA, Macmillan, and Apple declined to settle. They face a trial next summer.
The settlement approved Thursday calls for the publishers to end their contracts with Apple within one week. They must also terminate contracts with e-book retailers that contain restrictions on the retailer’s ability to set the price of an e-book or contain a ‘‘most favored nation’’ clause, which says no other retailer can alsell e-books for a lower price.
For the next two years, the settling publishers may not agree to contracts with e-book retailers that restrict the retailer’s ‘‘discretion over e-book pricing,’’ the court said. For five years, the publishers are not allowed to make contracts with retailers that include a most-favored-nation clause.
‘‘The Government reasonably describes these time-limited provisions as providing a ‘cooling-off period’ for the e-books industry that will allow it to return to a competitive state free from the impact of defendants’ collusive behavior,’’ the court said in a filing Thursday. ‘‘The time limits on these provisions suggest that they will not unduly dictate the ultimate contours of competition.”
Amazon.com Inc., which in April called the settlement ‘‘a big win for Kindle owners’’ — a reference to its e-reading device — has vowed to drop prices on its e-books, probably to the $9.99 point it once preferred for most bestsellers and newly released e-books.
Other retailers, like Barnes & Noble Inc., could feel pressure to respond. Barnes & Noble has spent heavily in the past several years to build its digital business ito catch up to Amazon. While it has captured at least 25 percent of the e-book market, it does not have Amazon’s deep pockets. It was the prospect of lower prices that the government cited when it sued. But publishers and retailers who are critical of the deal say it would have the unintended effect of allowing Amazon to gain a monopoly.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley joined 33 other attorneys general in a similar complaint, claiming Penguin, Macmillan, and Apple colluded on pricing.
The three publishers have agreed to refunds of about $69 million, including more than $2 million that will go to Massachusetts customers, Coakley said last week.