eBay Not Bound By Robinson-Patman Act–Windsor Auctions v. eBay

By Eric Goldman

Windsor Auctions, Inc. v. eBay, Inc., 2008 WL 2622791 (N.D. Cal. July 1, 2008)

The Robinson-Patman Act is a Depression-era law designed to reduce the ability of manufacturers to engage in price discrimination. At the time, large buyers (such as newly emerging chain retailers) were consolidating so much buying power that they were able to strongarm manufacturers into deals that were arguably unfair to the manufacturers and competitive but smaller retailers. The Robinson-Patman Act putatively tries to prevent these buyers from engaging in “predatory” buying prices by forcing the manufacturer to sell its goods at the same price to all similarly situated buyers. Prof. Paul Stancil published a nice summary of the law in Business Law Today in 2004.

I’m skeptical about the justifications for this law in the context of the Depression, but I’m crystal-clear about its validity today. In the modern age, the law has become farcically anachronistic, and I’m not sure I’ve ever met a single person who thinks the law is still a good idea. In practice, the Robinson-Patman Act is one of those obscure laws that typically arises only as a “gotcha” claim against defendants who don’t know better or inadvertently run afoul of its technical provisions while engaged in normal commercial decision-making. There’s certainly little evidence that the law actually improves competition or the marketplace.

In the case du jour, the plaintiff sells jewelry through eBay’s live auction. (It looks like Live Auction is turning into quite the lawsuit trap for eBay; see my most recent blog post about it). Windsor sold nearly $1.5M in merchandise through the site in 2005 and 2006. Windsor thought sales would double in 2007 but instead realized that its sales were decreasing. Windsor alleges that eBay gave a competitive jewelry vendor, Molayem, better listing tools than provided to Windsor, and these tools allowed Molayem’s listings to get more prominent placement in eBay’s interfaces than Windsor’s listings. Windsor claims that eBay’s differential treatment between Windsor and Molayem violated, among other things, the Robinson-Patman Act.

The court dismisses the Robinson-Patman Act claim because eBay is not providing “commodities” under the act. The act, like many others, distinguishes between goods (covered) and services (not covered). At its core, eBay’s relationship with its sellers is a service relationship of providing promotional/advertising services. Windsor tries to get around this by arguing that the software tools eBay provides its sellers (“Mr. Lister”/”Turbo Lister” and the “Batch Uploading Tool”) and its documentation manuals are goods. This argument is not totally ridiculous; indeed, software is routinely treated as a “good” for purposes of UCC Article 2. However, even if true, the software is just a bit part of an overall service relationship, so the court rightly rejects the Robinson-Patman Act without leave to amend. However, the case isn’t entirely over, as the court left open a claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

I think this case is closely related to the search engine bias cases such as KinderStart v. Google. A website/search engine’s decisions about what content to highlight (and, by implication, what not to showcase) can have dramatic effects on both consumers and vendors–to the tune of $1.5M in perceived foregone revenues in Windsor’s case. The Robinson-Patman Act was a pretty feeble legal tool to challenge a website’s interface decisions, but given the cash and emotions at stake, I’m sure plaintiffs will think creatively about other legal doctrines in their quest for recourse.

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