Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2010 Issue

Ebay's Victory in Fraud Case Offers an Example to Booksellers and Google

Tiffanyaboutme

The Tiffany warning page, about as easy to find on eBay as a needle in a haystack.


By Michael Stillman

A case pitting online auction giant eBay against luxury jeweler Tiffany's in the Second Circuit U.S. Appeals Court has all kinds of implications for sellers and buyers in the book field. The victory for eBay, which facilitates trade, but also facilitates fraud, is one about which booksellers and collectors may want to be aware. If I were a bookseller, I think I would want to post a copy of this decision in a spot visible to every potential customer who walked through the door.

This decision, though it does not apply directly, might also have implications for the Google Books case, currently being fought in another courtroom. We will get to this later.

Several years ago, Tiffany's, unsatisfied with eBay's efforts to stop the sale of fake Tiffany merchandise on their website, sued the auctioneer for trademark infringement. While exact figures are uncertain, there seems little doubt that a substantial amount of fake "Tiffany" jewelry is promoted and sold on eBay. If this shocks you, you are either incredibly naïve or have been living on another planet. However, the question was not whether eBay was selling fake "Tiffany" jewelry, nor even whether eBay was aware that they were selling fake "Tiffany" jewelry. Quoting the trial court, the Appeals Court stated, "a significant portion of the 'Tiffany' sterling silver jewelry listed on the eBay website...was counterfeit." The question, then, was whether eBay was obligated to do more than it was already to prevent the selling of fraudulent or misrepresented material on its site. The court said it was not.

Ebay argued that it had made all reasonable attempts to stop fraudulent merchandise from being sold. It had both automated programs and live representatives look at "Tiffany" listings for signs of fraud. It encouraged Tiffany to scour its listings and inform them of items it believed were misrepresented. It permitted Tiffany to post an "About Me" page on the eBay website where the jeweler stated, "Most of the purported TIFFANY & CO. silver jewelry and packaging available on eBay is counterfeit." Ebay provided warnings to sellers when they listed merchandise with the "Tiffany" name to be sure it was authentic, that eBay "does not tolerate listing of replica, counterfeit, or otherwise unauthorized items," and violation of this could result in suspension of the seller's account. Ebay does not automatically suspend a seller for listing his first fake "Tiffany" item, but employs something of a "three strikes rule" if the seller appears to be legitimate, most likely unaware that the item was counterfeit. In that case, a warning would be given first, but if it appeared that the seller was simply in the business of selling counterfeits, he would be removed immediately. Ebay suspends "hundred of thousands" of sellers every year, "tens of thousands" for suspected trademark infringement.

Without delving into the intricacies of case law the Court had to consider, the issue essentially came down to whether eBay was required to prevent all listings of counterfeit goods based on a "generalized" knowledge that misrepresentations were being made, rather than knowledge of specific cases. The Court came down on the side of specific requirements only. In other words, eBay is required to act when it has knowledge that a specific item is fraudulent, but not when it has reason to suspect that there are some unidentified fraudulent listings on its site. In order to show contributory trademark infringement, the Court said, "a service provider must have more than a general knowledge or reason to know that its service is being used to sell counterfeit goods. Some contemporary knowledge of which particular listings are infringing or will infringe in the future is necessary."

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