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Reality Check for eBay

Reports of shady auctions on eBay are nothing new.  Not only is there a flood of counterfeit merchandise available -- think impossible-to-find, expensive items suddenly offered in every color at bargain prices -- but knockoff artists are getting ever more savvy.  Fake goods are often accompanied by equally fake receipts or certificates of authenticity.  (In my own limited experience on eBay, I've had photos of geniuine merchandise copied and republished alongside listings for fakes, and even one brazen seller who plagiarized my text.  And no, I didn't view being copied with interested academic detachment.  I surprised myself by being really ticked off at the possibility of my own sale being jeopardized.)

EBay responds to complaints by rights owners through its Verified Rights Owner (VeRO) program.  As Katie Hafner reports in today's New York Times, however, eBay refuses responsibility for the goods traded on its site: 

"We never take possession of the goods sold through eBay, and we don't have any expertise," said Hani Durzy, an eBay spokesman.  "We're not clothing experts.  We're not car experts, and we're not jewelry experts.  We're experts at building a marketplace and bringing buyers and sellers together."

Some manufacturers find this detached, "we're just a marketplace" approach inadequate. Third-party reports of fakes, moreover, generally go unheeded. 

As one might expect, there's a legal response:  Tiffany is suing eBay.  (We'll keep an eye on this one.)

Perhaps more interesting is the extralegal response detailed by Hafner:  consumer afficionados of certain brands are banding together to hunt down major sources of counterfeit goods and gather evidence from independent appraisers.  One costume jewelry collector is even described as having "no qualms about breaking [eBay] rules by contacting buyers about fakes she spots." 

In addition to the auction vigilantes described in the Times, other consumers have leveraged the internet to collect and share information about fakes -- Louis Vuitton should thank http://mypoupette.com, for example. 

In a world where the collective inventory of fakes -- and the number of sleazy merchants trying to pass them off as real -- far exceeds the powers of law enforcement, proactive buyers can play an important role.  In fact, these virtual communities of consumers, by disseminating information, targeting knockoffs and their sellers, and stigmatizing willing buyers of counterfeits, may be at least as strong a force as trademark law.