A Business Fairy Tale: The Story of Auction Rover

Few things get me steamed like sites that use lawyers to bully people into giving them something they have no legal right to.

Topping this list is the so-called “right” to control links into a site. The web only works if linking is open. If you don’t want links, I say, charge for access.

But TicketMaster did finally convince Microsoft to sell its CitySearch the Sidewalk sites, in part by suing over links. Universal Studios has kept small sites out of its trailers’ database with lawsuits (and, in the case of journalists, by moving files around when links were detected).

Now we have eBay, which as I left for last week’s Internet World show began threatening legal action against AuctionWatch for linking into its auction database. If a lawsuit reaches trial, I hope this canard will be put to rest. The problem is few sites have the money to pursue a case to its conclusion.

It was against this backdrop, while wandering the halls of Internet World, that I came upon Auction Rover, a new auction aggregator based in Morrisville, North Carolina (near Raleigh). Product Manager Michael Jones was on booth duty at a small stand in the show’s “LaunchPad Showcase” area. The site was launching as we spoke, and he gave me a t-shirt to remember it by. (Good journalists always identify their “pay-offs.”)

“We list 809 auction sites, not including eBay,” Jones said. “eBay has at least 70 percent of the market, but the number of people doing auctions keeps expanding. Down the road it could become more of an even playing field.”

Still, what about the suit, and what if eBay comes after you, I asked? Jones shrugged and gave an honest answer. “We’ll work with eBay,” he said. “We’d like to do a partnership. We’re not out to compete with eBay.”

What about the principle of the thing, I asked? “From a business standpoint, it doesn’t make sense for us to go against eBay,” he replied. “We want to find a middle ground and partner-up. Instead of fighting, it’s best to see what you can do.”

This was an important lesson for me. Journalists can afford to take a stand on principle. A journalist who is imprisoned for doing the job is a hero. A journalist who is killed in the line of duty is a martyr.

But a business that fails is just another bankruptcy, so business ethics must be more fungible. Seen from this viewpoint, what eBay is doing may be just a negotiating tactic, one a site like Auction Rover might take advantage of. And if eBay wants to play hardball, there is, as Jones said, an answer in the marketplace.

This put another twist on the Chris Nolan case. Nolan was a San Jose Mercury News writer who lost her column for taking some pre-IPO stock. She thought what happened was unfair.

But journalistic ethics exist to protect businesses, not journalists, and if publishers play the game differently it’s because they’re businesspeople. Businesspeople must practice situational ethics — it’s why there’s so much tension among Republicans now.

It’s the golden rule — he who has the gold makes the rules. That’s the first law of the business jungle.

And if this doesn’t sound like a fairy tale, go back to the source. Real fairy tales are not for children. But, like Auction Rover, they do teach lessons.

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