EBay Launches in France

The world's largest auction site has launched in the homeland of the company's founder, Pierre Omidyar. But EBay Inc. France has already run into legal problems involving the domain name eBay.

The obvious domain-name choice for eBay to use in France has been registered by French auction site iBazar, which still holds rights to the address. General manager Marc Piquemal declined to discuss the dispute over the name, but his company's right to own eBay.fr will be challenged in a French court Oct. 18. Until then, eBay France will trade at Ebayfrance.com.

The company may face further problems of the domain-name variety: As of the morning of the launch, it hadn't bothered to register Ebayfrance.fr.

The site is a French-language front door to eBay listings worldwide, letting French customers search for goods in their home country or across all of eBay's sites.

It launches a year after the establishment of eBay Germany and eBay U.K.. This is the sixth site eBay has launched outside of the U.S., joining eBay U.K., Germany, Japan, Australia and Canada.

But from the start, eBay France hasn't been an easy undertaking. When Omidyar moved back from Silicon Valley last year, laws in France made online auctions all but illegal. A set of ancient laws designed to protect the Guild of Auctioneers requires that all auctions must be overseen by a licensed auctioneer. It also is illegal to auction new goods, another move meant to protect the guild's interests.

Even so, competitors such as QXL and Yahoo auctions have set up French language sites, hoping that because their sites are hosted centrally from other countries, they will be outside French jurisdiction. This theory hasn't yet been tested in French or European courts.

But earlier this year, eBay's head of international ventures, Michael van Swaaij, thought launching a site in France would be too risky. "If we would have started a business [in France] like QXL [did], there would have been a real chance of creating a relatively large liability," van Swaaij told The Standard in February. "Especially as an American company coming into Europe. If you're a big company, you're going to get hit."

Ebay, like QXL and other European competitors, has taken care not to define itself as an auction site, which would put the company uncomfortably at odds with French law.

"EBay doesn't auction off anything," van Swaaij said. "[We are] a marketplace where only information is exchanged." Ricardo.de, a German auction company that was acquired by QXL in May, says it doesn't auction off goods, it simply sells things to the highest bidder.

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