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*Company Launches ihrpreis.de — A German Version of Priceline.com

DUESSELDORF, Germany — A German venture capital group this month launched a German version of Priceline.com called “ihrpreis.de” and is convinced it has not violated the U.S. company’s patent.

“ihrpreis.de stands on its own feet,” said Joerg Hage, the PR counsel for the enterprise, ihrpreis.de AG. “The founders picked up the priceline.com principle but chose a more open approach.

“Instead of customers being offered one or two products at the beginning, we will offer a palette from financial services to high-tech. Customers will come in and make an offer and see if it is accepted or not.”

Nor does ihrpreis.de expect any problems with strict German legal curbs. Another German online merchant, Primus-Online, got into trouble with its “power shopping” concept.

“The idea was for a group of customers to get together and make a lower offer for a list price good, say 600 marks for a TV set priced at DM 1,000,” said a spokesman for the center against unfair competition, a trade group.

“That runs afoul of the German law against discount. If a product costs DM1,000, a merchant can’t just blithely lower the price. Other countries don’t have such laws, but we do so we went to court and got an injunction to stop them.”

The spokesman said he did not think that the priceline.com concept ran afoul of that law since the buyer is never told the list price of anything; he is simply offering X for goods or services and it is up to the seller to agree or disagree.

“We looked at the legal situation very carefully,” Hage said. “One of the company’s principals is a legal experts, and from the point of view of German law we see no objections.”

The company will spend four or five weeks tinkering with the site to make sure no operational problems arose. During that time customers are to find their way to the site through word-of-mouth advertising.

“We’ll start an advertising and PR campaign in March with ads running first online. Then we’ll go to print but we don’t know as yet how extensive that campaign will be.”

First reports in German media had depicted ihrpreis.de as a Priceline.com subsidiary, but the Stamford, CT-based company denied the rumor.

“We’re interested in developing an international business,” said spokesman Brian Ek, “but we haven’t done anything concrete as yet.” Asked whether he would look into possible patent infringement he declined to comment.

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