eBay Stole My Windorphins

This isn't the story that I wanted to write about, but I have to get it off my chest.

eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) wrapped up its eBay Live conference in Boston over the weekend. The annual get-together of buyers, sellers, and service providers was -- by most accounts -- a festive affair (minus that minor Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) distraction). New features to the marketplace were revealed, enhancing navigation and security throughout the site. A summer pricing promotion was even announced, keeping prices in check instead of the customary fee hikes.

The event coincided with the launch of Windorphins.com, which eBay North American president Bill Cobb introduced to the crowd. The new site takes a whimsical approach to the science of emerging victorious after a successful eBay auction. Clever copy of this "scientific breakthrough" fills the site, along with humorous video clips that hammer the concept home. Windorphins, after all, is the literal collision of win and endorphins.

So far, so good. The problem is that this is where I have to insert myself into the story. Since 1995, I've been blessed to cover the dot-com boom, bust, and renaissance from the Foolish vantage point of a financial analyst. These are front row seats, with the luxury of a sneeze guard separating myself from the active participants.

Well, that sneeze guard shattered to bits earlier this year. And to think that it all started with a spell check.

Looking for Windorphins.com
eBay CEO Meg Whitman spoke at the Morgan Stanley Technology Conference back in March. I was covering the presentation, and wanted to grasp at something thematic to make my story stand out. I found that when Whitman explained that one of the goals at eBay was to "continue to reignite the core auction experience, or what we call the windorphins business."

Windorphins?

"People have always come to eBay for the fun and the thrill of the hunt as opposed to just a more traditional clinical retail experience," she added.

Bingo. I can work with that.

Even though Whitman indicated that the word was the convergence of winning and endorphins, I didn't want to botch a term that my spellchecker was spitting back as bogus. I turned to Google, where billions of pages are indexed, only to come up empty. There wasn't a single reference to windorphins.

Had I stumbled onto a virgin buzzword? It certainly seemed that way. As a domain collector -- someone that has been buying, selling, and developing domains as a profitable hobby since the 1990s -- I was intrigued to find that the Windorphins.com domain name was freely available. I'm not out to become a dot-com mogul like Marchex (Nasdaq: MCHX  ) or CNET (Nasdaq: CNET  ) , though it's a nice distraction between the bylines.

I registered the domain on March 8, three days after Whitman spoke at the conference, indicating as such in my article covering eBay's presentation. For months, the only Google reference to the term was from my article. Really. Then I got the call.

It was mid-May, and a friendly person from eBay's corporate communications department wanted to talk to me. That isn't unusual. We ruffle feathers from time to time, and whether it's an opinion we want to defend or a mistake that we will want to retract, corporate communications departments are often there to smooth out the differences.

I was going over any recent published references to eBay in my head, when she explained that she wanted to talk about my registration of Windorphins.com.

A tale of losedorphins
She indicated that the company wanted the domain back. Back? I'm no thief. I'm no cybersquatter. I had registered the domain in good faith, hoping that windorphins would catch on as an industry buzzword. No one from eBay had any interest in registering the name or filing for a trademark when I stepped up to claim it.

She told me that it was a lapse on eBay's part. That Whitman had spilled the beans prematurely and that I had beaten the company's domain name manager by hours in landing the dot-com moniker.

It was a ridiculously awkward position to be in. She explained that eBay had indeed filed for a trademark and was set to use it for a marketing campaign later in the year.

I was too conflicted to play hardball. The last thing that I wanted to be was an enemy of one of the truly great online success stories of our generation.

  • eBay is an active recommendation in the Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletter service.
  • I am a huge user of the site, having amassed a 100% perfect feedback ratings score of 172 over the years.
  • Attempting to sell the domain to a public company like eBay would be unethical, in part because Fool.com restricts the size of gifts that we are allowed to receive. Trust me. I had to return a fresh, pre-release Nintendo Wii last year.
  • I'm no litigation magnet. If my wife and I didn't sue when doctors misdiagnosed our youngest son's brain cancer a year before it was ultimately detected (and successfully treated), this wasn't going to get my goat.

So I stopped her a few minutes into the hard sell. I come in peace. I had missed the trademark filing, and surely would have never even bothered with the registration if I knew that I was ruffling through eBay's legal property over simply Whitman's colorful vernacular. I then worked with the company's intellectual property counsel and global domain manager to hand over Windorphins.com later in the week.

Case closed? Well, not exactly. The whole situation had me scratching my head. If this was such an important part of eBay's marketing strategy, why didn't it register the domain as it filed for the trademark? Surely a Web-savvy company like eBay wouldn't be so remiss, right?

Right?

Well, it turns out that eBay didn't file the Windorphins trademark until March 23, more than two weeks after I registered the domain.

Was I duped or misled into handing over the domain? Keep in mind that I didn't even ask for the domain registration fee that I paid, so this Windorphins.com domain emphasis is on my dime through March of next year. But, no, I'm a friend of eBay. I can be objective enough to see that this is a company taking the right steps to bounce back from sluggish stateside listings lately by emphasizing the marketplace's fun factor.

Next time, I'll go with whimsical endorphins or whimdorphins
It didn't take long for eBay to kick the Windorphins campaign into high gear. Ads are showing up on commuter trains and I'm guessing that it won't be long before the video clips on the site begin showing up on television.

eBay's marketing past has always been peppered with fun. Surely you have to remember the "Do it eBay" ads that took classics like My Way and On Broadway and turned them into show-stopping eBay-pimping musicals. A more recent example is the brilliant "it" campaign that features consumers getting excited over getting "it" in the form of big block letters.

eBay knows that at the end of the day, it's simply an auction site. Sites like Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) and Overstock (Nasdaq: OSTK  ) offer online trading platforms. Sites like Craigslist and now even Facebook offer merchandise listings.

eBay's killer advantage -- a thicker moat than anyone realizes -- is that it's where serious bidders and sellers congregate. Getting the masses to come over involves painting a world of whimsy, where every listing is an adventure. Whether it's channeling Sinatra, block letters, or now windorphins, it sets eBay apart from the fading competition.

So I have no problem stepping back from the domain name fuss to accept that windrophins is just what eBay needs at a moment when its stateside listings can use a little chemical boost. I'm just glad that I don't have to leave a feedback rating on the transaction itself. It wouldn't be pretty, if only because I'm grasping at windorphins that I can no longer internally produce.

eBay and Amazon.com are Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletter selections. CNET Networks is a Rule Breakers stock pick. Read all of the original recommendation reports -- now -- with a free 30-day trial subscription.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a satisfied eBay user with 172 positive feedbacks to show for it. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also a member of theRule Breakers analytical team, seeking out the next great growth stock early in its defiance. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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