Last February Scott Pilutik, an aggressively anti-religion blogger and lawyer, posted this excellent piece about the abuse by the Scientology cult of eBay’s VeRO program, which eBay waves around to show what it’s doing to combat counterfeiting on the Internet (though of course the courts have mainly relieved it of having to do much of anything). The “church” uses VeRO to prevent ex-members from selling a piece of mechanical garbage called an e-meter to either novitiates, souvenir hunters or whoever else would want to buy them on eBay.
Like tanning goop manufacturers Australian Gold and Designer Skin, Scientology wants to control distribution of its merchandise; like those companies as well, it is mostly selling packaging and marketing, not value, so control over distribution is key to the business model. Market prices are bad for business when you’re selling something that’s not “really” worth all that much. Businesses such as these therefore use fallacious claims sounding in intellectual property infringement as proxies for price-inflating market forces that don’t exist. All too often, the regimes that purport to enforce those laws, be they judges or private companies such as eBay, are all too willing to help outfits such as these abuse them.
Let’s pick up the action here:
It should come as little surprise that VeRO members routinely overreach, as the cost of challenging a listing removal is almost always prohibitive. (See my paper on this subject here, and see the brave husband and wife exception to this rule here.) The VeRO Program makes a great deal of sense for some types of listings—counterfeit Rolexes and Gucci handbags appear on eBay with such frequent regularity that those companies would be hard pressed to handle these trademark violations any other way.
But Bill’s e-meters (and the e-meters other ex-Scientologists have attempted to sell on eBay) are not counterfeits and do not violate the Church of Scientology’s trademarks, patents, or copyrights. Some sellers have even included the serial number found at the bottom of each e-meter in their listings in order to authenticate them. There is no source confusion, as every seller whose e-meters have been removed have made it clear that they took the photo of the e-meter, and that they are not affiliated with the Church of Scientology. Patent law doesn’t prevent the resale of patented items, and patent law barely covers e-meters anyway, the first having run out years ago and the 2000 patent only covering “improvements” on the “Quantum” e-meter. And copyright law barely applies here—all of the listings I’ve observed have been originally written, for one thing, and regardless, Scientology (from what I can gather) has only issued VeRO complaints under patent and trademark bases.
In short, the Church of Scientology is at least constructively aware that the e-meters being listed on eBay are authentic, and so have no basis under trademark—or under any other intellectual property basis, for removing these listings. What’s actually going on here is that Scientology is abusing eBay’s VeRO program, knowingly alleging Intellectual Property violations that clearly don’t exist, so that they can limit the secondary market for e-Meters, controlling both the price and who can get them.
Sound familiar? I emailed Scott Pilutik tonight to ask him, before posting this, if anything had changed. He said this:
That post of mine actually wound up getting quite a bit of attention including a mention in the LA Times.
I actually have followed the Scientology e-meter on eBay issue but haven’t written anything up. I vigilantly monitored e-meter sales on eBay right after my post and was in touch with sellers during that time and some sales went through and some didn’t. After a few months though, all the sales started going through. While I’ve not monitored the issue myself for some time, some Scientology critics, with whom I’m in contact, have been watching and have recently told me that all e-meter sales have gone through.
I’ve no idea whether my post was the cause of this change in policy, but it seems like there’s a good chance it might have been. If so, I’d be curious to know whether eBay noticed and pressured Scientology to behave or whether Scientology just stopped issuing takedowns because of the unwarranted press attention (or whether they sensed liability).
I was inclined to say, “well, how nice for sellers of e-meters, but who wants an e-meter, really? Now indoor tanning lotion…” But then I realized that while an e-meter may be a silly waste of time, at least it doesn’t turn your skin into leather or cause cancer or have any other side effects that occur under the watchful eye of highly-trained tanning salon employees!
Life is complicated all right. Makes me want to get an audit or something! Or a tan. A tanning audit. But only from an “authorized” dealer.