AuctionWatch launched its search engine almost two weeks ago with listings from eBay, as well as Yahoo, Amazon.com, Microsoft Network, and other auction networks using FairMarket and OpenSite technologies.
Now, eBay is threatening to close off the company's access to its listings and to take legal action against the auction service firm, according to AuctionWatch chief executive Rodrigo Sales. eBay told the company to stop searching its listings yesterday, Sales said, adding that the two companies had been discussing the issue since AuctionWatch launched its listing service on September 25.
eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove confirmed the discussions. According to Pursglove, eBay gave AuctionWatch a "courtesy call" yesterday to let the company know eBay was drafting a formal letter to ask it to stop searching the site's listings.
Despite the threats, Sales said AuctionWatch would continue to offer the eBay listings on its service.
"We feel at this point that it is in our best interests to be the advocate of the user and to stand up for the users' rights," Sales said. "If eBay intends to pursue us in court, then we will need to defend our position."
Earlier this month, eBay asked Bidder's Edge and eight other sites to stop searching its site for auctions. Bidder's Edge has since stopped listing eBay's auctions in its search results. As first reported by CNET News.com, AuctionWatch launched its search service with eBay's listings but without the company's permission.
In an interview on September 27, Pursglove said the company discourages sites from combing its auctions because it wants to protect its users.
Search sites can bog down eBay's computers and slow bidding for users, Pursglove said. He also said eBay has received complaints from users that information on other sites often does not give full descriptions of items or doesn't have the most up-to-date bidding information.
"Until we can come up with a system that can better handle that, we are going to discourage this type of use," he said.
Sales said AuctionWatch's new feature searches eBay and other auction sites when a user puts in a search request, providing the most up-to-date bidding information. The site links directly to the auction listings, where users can then bid on the item.
This feature is in high demand on AuctionWatch, Sales said. Buyers want to find and compare auctions easily, and sellers want to give their auctions greater exposure, he said.
"We saw it as a win across the board," Sales said. Despite eBay's opposition, he said, "we felt we wanted to go forward and provide the community with what they wanted."
Sales said that during discussions with eBay, the company offered to allow AuctionWatch to license its listings, but with the caveat that its listings would not be presented in the same results as those from other auction sites. Sales said AuctionWatch rejected the offer, arguing that that the company shouldn't have to license the listings.
"We feel that it's in public domain," Sales said. "It should be accessible to anyone on the Web."
The problem is that there is no clear law on searching sites, said attorney Rich Gray of Outside General Counsel of Silicon Valley. Although copyright statutes protect original works such as news stories and photographs on the Web, Gray said that there's no clear law or legal theory that might protect eBay's listing information.
"It's an open and unclear question what right you have to say to an aggregator 'well no, you can't do that,' " Gray said.
Online auction analyst Sue Rothberg of Gomez Advisors said that eBay's reasons for opposing outside searches of its listing probably had more to do with the company's ego than any notion of protecting users' interests. By providing a range of auction services such as discussion boards, image hosting, and bidding tips, sites such as AuctionWatch and Bidder's Edge are trying to supplant eBay as the No. 1 auction destination on the Web. And through their search engines, they have the potential to draw bidders to other auction sites.
But Rothberg said eBay didn't have much to fear from such sites as AuctionWatch.
"I don't think it's that great a threat," Rothberg said. "If you're an auction buff, chances are you're on eBay all the time anyway. I don't know why they are up in arms about it."