eBay May Sue Comparison Site

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EBay.com is considering legal action against AuctionWatch.com, an upstart site that has decided for a second time to list the Internet's largest auctioneer along with Yahoo, Amazon.com and 300 other online auctions it compares and searches.

This comes two months after eBay stopped AuctionWatch from including its auction listings on grounds of property rights. But AuctionWatch's decision to again include eBay's listings - attributed to consumer dissatisfaction and a 50 percent drop in traffic when AuctionWatch was forced in November to exclude eBay - has escalated tension.

"We do believe we're in full compliance with all applicable laws, and while a lawsuit is certainly not the outcome that we'd like, we are prepared," said AuctionWatch CEO Rodrigo Sales. "We believe very strongly in not only our product, and the consumer need for the product, as well as our legal position."

"Make no mistake. From our perspective, AuctionWatch is not interested in the best user experience," said Kevin Pursglove, spokesman at San Jose, CA-based eBay. "What they want to have happen here is to remove information and items from various trading sites such as eBay, list that information on their site so that they can attract more people and then sell advertising.

"At this point, we'll consider any legal and technical options that are at our disposal [to stop AuctionWatch] and we're weighing those options right now."

eBay accounts for 75 percent of all online auctions, according to Ernst & Young, with Amazon and Yahoo accounting for another 15 percent.

AuctionWatch, San Bruno, CA, will stick by its Jan. 18 decision to display eBay listings on its site's universal search area - a fact it touts on its home page.

The eBay-AuctionWatch dust-up boils down to copyright. AuctionWatch claims eBay doesn't have a lien over its consumer-posted content. The information on the eBay site is public domain, available for all to see and access.

"And it's not information that is generated by eBay," AuctionWatch's Sales said, "but rather generated by ... the sellers who use eBay to host their auctions."

Of course, should eBay choose to litigate, it is for the courts to decide if a Web site has the right to block spiders, or crawling agents, and if services such as AuctionWatch can sidestep such blocks.

But AuctionWatch's Sales is willing to call eBay's bluff, confident that eBay won't contest his site's decision to trawl eBay. EBay has been adamant that it has no control over the accuracy of items up for auction on its site, he pointed out.

"This has been very openly stated," Sales said, "particularly when things have come up on eBay, such as 500 pounds of marijuana, or the kidney and the baby and other number of questionable items."

EBay's objections to a round-the-clock monitor of its site are numerous, according to Pursglove. Not only is AuctionWatch's access unauthorized, but the information is being transplanted to another site, he said. Also, there is no guarantee of the accuracy, timeliness and form of such information, which could impact eBay negatively.

AuctionWatch rivals iTrack.com and AuctionRover.com made peace with eBay by listing the auction site separately and paying a licensing fee. A third site, which eBay's Pursglove wouldn't name, will soon join them. AuctionWatch declined to pay a fee when offered the license by the consumer-to-consumer auctioneer.

"eBay has asked AuctionWatch to stop doing something, blocked them technically and AuctionWatch has essentially written software that has the specific goal of getting around the blocks," said Scot Wingo, president of AuctionRover, Research Triangle Park, NC. "These are techniques that we believe hackers or crackers employ, and not professional software organizations."

"The bottom line is, it's a basic business decision for us as well," Pursglove said. "We're very much concerned about the eBay user experience in this process and maintaining the eBay brand. We're very much concerned with the fact that we've made a very significant investment in this company over the past four years."

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