Here’s a small tempest in a teapot that’s brewing online, just in time to sidetrack eBay from its multi-billion dollar purchase of Skype.
In one corner we have Harry Potter author Jo Rowling, who has been sharing with her fans that she’s upset about “signed copies” of her books for sale on eBay that are actually forgeries. In the other corner we have eBay who says “consumers should be wary of any signatures sold on the site”.
Confusing the matter, eBay is also stating that “it’s up to the copyright owner to report a violation” while Rowling claims she’s already done so, without result.
What makes this interesting is that it really demonstrates the phenomenal challenge of policing the digital world: author Jo Rowling is essentially claiming that she knows the location of every signed copy of her Harry Potter books, while eBay is responding that figuring out what is legitimate and what isn’t is far too difficult a job for them to undertake.
I understand eBay’s position in this situation, because as a venue for selling products, eBay cannot possibly check the veracity and legitimacy of every item up for sale, with millions more added every day. On the other hand, as with any other auction site, the audience for eBay will surely be disillusioned if the chance of being ripped off exceeds a certain threshold, so they can’t completely ignore the situation either, especially with the person whose autograph is in question is stating publicly that the auction items are not legitimate.
Go look at an auction on eBay and you’ll see that the bottom of a typical signed Potter book listing, just like any other eBay item, states that “Seller assumes all responsibility for listing this item.” More to the point, in its help area, eBay has an entire page about autographed items where it states: “eBay may also seek a disinterested third party�s opinion regarding any listing of an autograph or autographed item. If the third party has concerns about the autograph�s or item�s authenticity, eBay may remove the listing from the site.”
This doesn’t apply to Rowling, however, because as the ostensible “signer” of the book, ironically, she’s not a disinterested third party, is she?
Further, here’s what I thought was a more interesting clause, and one that might end up at the center of this controversy: “eBay may remove any listing involving an autographed item if eBay believes that the listing or item may create liability for the buyer, the seller, or any third party.”
In that instance, surely a book purported to be signed by the author but actually a forgery does create liability for a third party, the author herself?
Their rules, then, are somewhat contradictory because on the one hand the person whose signature is involved cannot be called upon to verify their signature (which certainly seems weird to me), but on the other hand, the author is indirectly liable for anyone who buys a forgery expecting a legitimate autograph, and that person can reasonably inquire directly to the author – J. K. Rowling in this case – requesting a legitimate autograph.
So can Rowling stop the auction of autographed Harry Potter books that are purported to be forgeries? Or can eBay stick with its existing autograph policy and continue to encourage its buyers to caveat emptor as usual?