Last week, eBay sent me a message urging me to contact my state representatives in support of a bill that would exempt eBay sellers in Pennsylvania from having to get auctioneer licenses. “You may have heard the Pennsylvania State Board of Auctioneer Examiners is lobbying for eBay sellers to be licensed under the state’s outdated Auctioneer Licensing statute,” eBay’s message read. “In fact, one eBay seller has already been forced out of business because of attorney fees incurred while fighting the State Board and the potential of huge fines if the Board ruled against him. Without swift action by the eBay Community and the Pennsylvania legislature, your eBay sales could also be at risk.”
How ridiculous! I thought. Why would I have to be licensed? EBay actually conducts the auctions; I just write the descriptions and send the merchandise. And how would the state enforce such a law? Too few eBay sellers even know when they’re supposed to collect sales tax (or ignore the law when they should). If it’s an issue of competition for live auction houses, don’t they realize that eBay sellers are actually giving them more business? I know I’ve seen that happen at my local auction house. If the state could enforce such licensing, it would mean that only the big “Power” sellers would stay in business and the average seller, like me, would lose out on the opportunity to earn a little extra income. I doubt it would be worth the time and money for me to go through the licensing process.
Before I let myself get too carried away in this line of thinking, I decided to do some research. I looked at the Pennsylvania State Board of Auctioneer Examiners’ website to find support for the opposing point of view, only to find none. When I emailed the Board, its representative replied (in knee-deep jargon) that the Board exists only to carry out existing laws and does not make any legislative recommendations whatsoever. I started to doubt the accuracy of eBay’s email.
With a disclaimer warning me not to interpret the law without a law degree (hmmhow can I obey a law I’m not qualified to understand?), The Board of Auctioneer Examiners representative pointed me to the Board’s latest newsletter, which cautiously explained who qualified as an auctioneer. It said that an auction company is defined “as a company which, as part of its business, arranges, manages, sponsors, advertises or carries out auctions” and that “any online business with a physical presence in Pennsylvania that takes in consignments from third parties and places them online with the intent that they be auctioned, must be licensed as an auction company.”
So, lack of law degree aside, I interpret that statement to mean that any consignment business that uses online auctions to sell things for other people (whether from home or a storefront) needs an auctioneer’s license, but anyone who sells his or her own things (or buys from others to resell) does not. While that is a fine line to draw, it does provide some relief for the average eBay seller who wants to make a little extra cash in his or her spare time. Unless I decide to sell for others, I appear to be exempt from the existing license requirements.
While I could not validate eBay’s statement that the state’s licensing requirement put another seller out of business, I did look up the bill that eBay was suggesting I support. Pennsylvania Senate Bill No. 908 amends the state’s current auctioneer licensing law to make an exemption for auctions conducted online. Other state legislatures have dealt with enforcing license laws for online auction sellers, but to my knowledge, no other states have enacted a law exempting them from licenses. Perhaps Pennsylvania will set a precedent.
While I am disgusted that eBay stretched the truth about the opposition’s lobbying in order to gain my support (the email technically said only that I “may have heard” about such lobbying), I do have to agree with the sense of the bill. Online auction sellers (even consignment sellers) do not have to know as much about the bidding process as live auctioneers do, nor should they (in my opinion) have to pay yet another fee to participate in online auctions. Adding another fee would discourage small sellers, who would discard their unwanted items in other ways, most likely through the trash, which would add more to landfills.
The state already benefits from additional sales tax generated by sellers who follow the law; adding a license fee would create a greater need for enforcement without (I suspect) adding enough income to support such enforcement. Existing auctioneers also benefit from eBay sellers, who have discovered live auctions as a means for finding merchandise.
Exempting sellers at online auctions from having to become licensed as auctioneers is a win-win-win situation. I think I may have to take the time to write my representatives to say so.
Image courtesy of pbo31