December 23, 2002

Teaching eBay how free software licensing works

- By John Holroyd -

I am Managing Director of a very small UK company. We sell Unix hardware and GNU/Linux software. We are a listed Debian vendor, and over the past two months I have been involved in a frustrating battle of words with eBay to try and get them to reverse some rather annoying software sales policies.

On the 9th of November this year I received an email telling me that my auction for GNU/Hurd preview disks had been removed due to possible trademark and copyright violations.

In my typical manner, I responded that the GPL gave me the right to distribute this software and re listed the item, I also contacted Craig Small at Debian, who wrote to eBay on my behalf explaining their distribution policy and offering to help them with any advice they needed on free software and licensing issues.

Hearing nothing more from eBay, I continued to list Debian GNU/Linux without any further incidents...

Almost a month later, another auction of mine was pulled, this time for Debian GNU/Linux, eBay sent me a wonderful email titled, Piracy and Bootlegs, proposing to educate me on why it was wrong for me to sell GNU/Linux CD-Rs. I wrote back to their UK team, patiently explaining that, as previously discussed, I had permission from the 'VERO' (VErified Rights Owner) to sell these CD-Rs, and that this was irrelevant as the GPL and other free licenses allowed me to redistribute the software without paying royalties or seeking explicit approval.

I wrote again to Craig Small, and again he sent an email to eBay on my behalf and tried in vain to reason with eBay's VERO team, who had insisted to me that I needed Debian's explicit permission, and to Craig I couldn't sell Debian CD-Rs, even with the explicit permission of the Debian org, unless they made their software Public Domain.

I was furious, and sent a stinging email to eBay questioning their policy and calling it stupid, pointing out the fact that they used Apache and Linux to run Paypal and Billpoint.

At this point I could have walked away. I tend to sell only two or three Debian CD sets a week, so it would not hurt my business to just stop selling free software, but I'm not that type of guy.

Instead, I sent emails to the EFF and Richard Stallman asking for advice.

RMS responded, telling me he agreed, but he did not know anybody at eBay and had no way of making them listen to him. Even so, he encouraged me to push the matter further.

I still haven't had a reply from the EFF, and I am a member:.(

I decided to change my tack in my emails to eBay and offered a more conciliatory tone, telling them I understood their policy but wanted it changed. As usual, I got 'cut and paste' answers and got passed from respondent to respondent.

I eventually wrote an email to Jane Hatton, eBay's UK Computer section manager, pointing this out, with a series of suggestions for altering the eBay policy regarding CD-Rs to ensure that free software could be distributed without putting eBay's anti piracy measures at risk.

Specifically, I suggested that their listing policy should be amended to allow 'Software verifiably released under a free license which allows for royalty free re-distribution.'

I also told her that we, the free software community, had crossed the Rubicon and that eBay should cross it with us.

For a couple of days I received nothing back from eBay beyond the standard 'cut and paste' stuff.

Then, on Friday the 13th, I got a reply from Jane. She told me that there was a lot to consider in this matter, and that she had brought it up with their Legal directors and they were considering the issues carefully. She promised to contact me when she had any further news.

Yesterday I received a phone call from Jane. She explained to me that some changes were afoot and that she would call back later. I waited anxiously for her to call back, and eventually she did.

eBay were now prepared to allow me to list Debian software, since I was an official Debian vendor. I must put this on every auction, and anybody else who wanted to sell the CD-Rs must go through the same steps. This isn't as hard as it might sound, since to become a Debian vendor you simply have to ask.

I was jubilant at this, but I told Jane that it went only halfway to what I wanted to see, which was the removal of all barriers affecting free software so that anybody could sell it. She was quite surprised at a businessman advocating extra competition, and informed me that eBay realised that their current software policy needed to change, and that in the new year they would be examining their options, and by the way would I like to help?

As I said to RMS in a followup email about this situation, this is a small victory for the community, but hopefully it will lead to larger victories and the opening of a market largely closed to us in the past.

Note:I would like to thank RMS and Craig Small publicly. Without their inspiration and advice, I might not have pushed so hard.

- John H.


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