Note to eBay: A Chink in the Amazon Armor?

I don’t usually blog “personal” stories, but this one is irresistible.  It raises disturbing questions at the border of digital and physical life, and legal problems of trademark and the emerging issues of cloud computing and data liability.

EBay, as everyone knows, has been struggling to improve its customer experience in the light of disappointing results in the last few years. One problem in particular that the company has worked hard to address is the problem of sellers who either misrepresent their items or otherwise underperform in the transaction, tarnishing the image of eBay in the process.

There are of course legal consequences to some of these problems as well. EBay has been the subject of numerous lawsuits in the U.S. and abroad from trademark holders claiming that eBay sellers are offering knock-off or forged goods as branded merchandise, or selling items outside the often-strict terms under which authorized merchants may sell branded goods. (For example, selling outside assigned geographic territory, or selling below the authorized price or terms.)

I’ve written extensively about the eBay litigation, including lawsuits brought by Tiffany in the U.S. and the Louis Vuitton brands in France. The question in these cases comes down to a definition of what eBay actually “is”—a department store responsible for the merchandise sold on its premises (liable) or a community bulletin board offered as a convenience to connect buyers and sellers of a variety of unrelated products and services (not liable).

EBay is neither of these things—it is an example of a new kind of virtual marketplace enabled by digital technology. But the law here, as elsewhere, has not kept up with the changing realities of digital life, leaving judges to struggle with analogies that just don’t fit. EBay has scored strong victories in the U.S., and significant losses abroad. Whatever the results in these cases, the legal reasoning is always hopeless and the opinions useless as precedent. The law evolves slowly.

(In a new twist, just the other week eBay was ordered to pay over $300,000 by a French court in another dispute with Louis Vuitton. This one involved eBay’s practice of purchasing advertising keywords that were common misspellings of LVMH marks that directed searches to eBay. EBay is appealing.)

Amazon’s third-party Marketplace, which has eaten into eBay’s market significantly over the years, has largely avoided these public legal skirmishes. Brand holders and their distributors may prefer to sell through Amazon than eBay, giving an incentive not to litigate when problems do arise. Amazon also manages a much smaller and generally more professional group of third party merchants than does eBay and, it appears, exercises more vigorous policing over the items that appear under the Amazon banner but which in fact are sold and distributed by third parties.

Well, maybe not. Recently I purchased a replacement camera battery from an Amazon third party merchant. (You can find the listing here, though I strongly suspect it will be changed or disabled very shortly for reasons that will become clear in a moment.)

Dissatisfied with after-market batteries I have purchased in the past, I decided this time to buy an actual Minolta battery for my Minolta camera. The listing I purchased from described the item as a “Konica Minolta DiMAGE X Replacement Battery,” and even had a link immediately below to “Other products by Konica-Minolta” (sic), which went to a page of authorized, branded goods from the electronics giant. Overall, the listing gives several indications that suggest an actual, new Minolta battery is being offered.

I received the battery today, only to find that what I received was an OEM battery of completely unknown quality and a completely different brand. (I haven’t bothered to test it out yet—but in any case, my problem with OEM batteries is that they often stop holding a charge after a month or two of use.) The purchase price was small, and the unrefundable shipping and handling represented about a third of the cost. Still, I wrote to the merchant to request a return authorization.

The merchant called immediately with an unusual story to tell. He claimed that his original listing was entirely accurate, and that the title listed his house brand name (“Wasabi”) and not Konica Minolta. But, he advised, Amazon allows other merchants who sell “the same item” to include themselves as a seller of the item and to make modifications to the page.  Another seller, he claimed, changed the listing to misrepresent the item.

Even if another seller makes changes that are inaccurate or, in this case, obviously fraudulent and infringing of strong trademarks, the seller complained to me that there is nothing the original seller can do. He claims that when he has previously advised Amazon of similar changes, Amazon often failed to correct the listings and informed him there was nothing he could do about it—that later changes take priority.

There is indeed a second seller listed as offering this item, though the merchant I purchased from is still the default seller on the page and, in fact, the second seller offers “the same item” at a higher price. (It’s unclear what the second seller actually sells--a Konica Minolta battery or a different after-market compatible battery. Amazon has several other pages offering several other after-market batteries.) There were no reviews of the item until I wrote one today noting the misrepresentation.

The merchant indicated that he hadn’t noticed this particular error (he sells a great deal of after-market items) but that when he received my complaint he immediately requested Amazon correct the page. Amazon, he said, rejected the changes. (As of the end of the day, the original page is still intact.) He offered to—and later did—fully refund my purchase including the shipping and handling, and told me to keep the item anyway. I told him I would contact Amazon, which he encouraged me to do, and asked me to call him back if they didn’t confirm everything he had told me.

Amazon denied everything he told me. Specifically, the customer service representative told me that he would file a complaint against the merchant but that, “I can tell you that what he told you is completely inaccurate.” (I don’t think the call was being recorded—in any case, I wasn’t notified if it was.)

Worse, when I asked them to get the merchant on the call, the customer service representative agreed but told me that “for legal purposes” he would not be able to confirm or deny anything he had previously said to me once the merchant got on the call. (That strikes me as the kind of “urban myth” legal advice that has no actual value but which gets passed along all the time.) True to his promise, the Amazon CSR listened politely as the merchant repeated his explanation of a serious breakdown in Amazon’s process, told in the presence of a customer, and neither confirmed nor denied it, much to the merchant’s frustration.

After the call, the merchant emailed me the following quotation from, he says, the Seller Support page’s “Detail Page Control” process:

In most categories, multiple sellers sell the same product through a single detail page. This provides an organized, uniform product presence in our catalog and increases the convenience of comparison shopping for potential buyers.

The information displayed on an Amazon single detail page, called "reconciled" data, is drawn from multiple seller contributions. When a seller contributes product information to an existing item in our catalog, a decision is made about whether or not to display any changes to the product details on the single detail page. This decision is processed automatically according to business logic known as "Detail Page Control." Detail Page Control determines which of the available product descriptions, features, titles, and additional details are displayed on the single detail page.

The selection is made based on which contributing seller has greater Detail Page Control as determined by our automated system. This could be Amazon or any seller offering the item. Detail Page Control rankings are not modified manually, but are regularly reviewed and updated automatically by our system. Some factors that affect Detail Page Control are a seller's sales volume, refund rate, buyer feedback, and A-to-z Guarantee claims.

I can’t say if this is actually what the Amazon page says (it is behind a firewall for sellers) or what, in addition, the page says regarding fraudulent information and information that constitutes potential trademark infringement or other actionable unfair trade practices. Nor is it clear what controls exist over merchants claiming to sell “the same product” but who in fact sell something different. Nor can I say why, when asked directly by the merchant on the call to assure the customer (me) that the merchant was accurately describing Amazon’s process, the CSR refused to “confirm or deny anything.”

The description of the system, if accurate, suggests a significant level of control exercised by Amazon over the accuracy and quality of the content of its listings. It goes beyond what I understand to be the level of control exercised by eBay.

Could this prove definitive in trademark disputes brought by companies such as, oh I don’t know, Konica Minolta? Perhaps so. Could it serve as evidence eBay could use to make the case that it is “less” of a storefront than Amazon in eBay’s own litigation? Well, I’d certainly offer it were I representing eBay. (I do not represent eBay. Or Amazon. Or Konica Minolta. Or the merchant in this case.)

The merchant, understandably upset if he is telling the truth, wrote that he owns a small business that provides for his wife and son and is greatly distressed that I have had a bad experience with him for which he cannot get Amazon to take the blame. Though I am a long-time and very satisfied Amazon customer, I have had enough bad experiences with their third party Amazon marketplace resellers to suspect he is telling the truth here.

That is, it seems plausible to me that another seller sabotaged his listing and that Amazon’s processes aren’t good enough to correct that behavior on a timely basis. A few well-placed lawsuits by brand holders ought to take care of the problem, if in fact there is a problem. But even an honest merchant is a small cog in a big machine, with little recourse except perhaps to move his business to another marketplace. (But then he would have to learn another perhaps imperfect system and would lose all the reputation value of his nearly 4,000 customer reviews.)

One disturbing detail, however. After the calls I went back and looked at the sales receipt that accompanied the battery, which was shipped by the merchant and not Amazon. The receipt, printed under the merchant’s letterhead, includes an SKU that I assume to be the merchant’s and not Amazon’s. In any case, the item description repeats the description on the Amazon page, that is, it describes the item as a Konica Minolta battery and not the merchant’s house branded OEM.

I asked the merchant by way of follow-up to explain his Sales Receipt. He writes, “We use the title of the product (as listed on Amazon) on our printed sales receipt. If the product title changes on Amazon, so too will the description as it appears on our sales receipt.”

I suspect what he means is that either he uses Amazon’s systems or that his system pulls its data on-demand from Amazon. If so, here’s another interesting legal problem raised by the move to cloud computing. Who’s responsible when bad data generates actionable misrepresentations?