The auction of primitive electronic devices used by the Church of Scientology to measure the spiritual health of its members has been blocked by eBay, to the dismay of critics of the church and supporters of the Internet auction system.
Roger Gonnet - a French eBay user and author of La Secte, a memoir of his eight years as a Scientologist - said there was no need to have abandoned the auction, and accused the online auction house of capitulating without researching the church's legal arguments.
The items were "e-meters", electronic devices used by Scientology ministers in what are known as "auditing sessions". Several of these were being auctioned off on eBay before lawyers representing the Church of Scientology complained, saying that only licensed Scientology ministers were allowed to own e-meters. EBay discontinued the auctions of the devices.
According to Gonnet, this has happened before: "This is at least the second or third time that eBay has blocked such a sale. I wrote to eBay, saying they had to stop that sort of protection. They haven't any right to stop an auction on such a stupid argument."
In another case in February 1999, an un-named person lodged a complaint against Amazon, which offered for sale a book that was critical of the church - A Piece Of Blue Sky by Jon Atack. The complainant told Amazon that the book was illegal, and Amazon discontinued its sale. Unfortunately, the grounds for complaint were shaky.
Only one paragraph of the book had been deemed libellous, and this only in the UK. It was permissible to sell the book in other European countries and the US. After much public outcry, Amazon gave in and reinstated the book on its site.
Helen Kobrin, a lawyer for the church, said that e-meters are protected under US federal law, which states they may only be owned by authorised members of the Church of Scientology. But she couldn't recall what case or federal ruling established this legal protection.
According to eBay, the e-meter auction was discontinued under its intellectual property owners protection programme, VeRO (Verified Rights Owner). "EBay removed the item because of the VeRO guidelines; we are not determining the legality or illegality of the item," said eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove.
Gonnet argues that the e-meters are not intellectual property, but physical property, and therefore shouldn't be protected under the VeRO program. Pursglove said that the seller of a discontinued auction has the right to appeal, both with the rights owner and with eBay itself.
For eBay, he argued, is is safer to discontinue an auction and ask questions later - much as Amazon did - than risk violating the law.