eBay says it may have to shut down Skype due to a licensing dispute with the founders of the internet telephony service.
The surprise admission puts a cloud over the 40 million active daily users around the world who use Skype for business or to keep in touch with friends and far-flung relatives.
A recent study by market researcher TeleGeography found Skype carried about 8 per cent of all international voice traffic, making it the world’s largest provider of cross-border voice communications.
The online auction powerhouse bought Skype from entrepreneurs Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis for $US2.6 billion in 2005, but this did not include a core piece of peer-to-peer communications technology that powers the software.
eBay has since been licensing the technology from the founders’ new company, Joltid, but the pair recently decided to revoke the licensing agreement.
The matter is now the subject of a legal battle in the English High Court of Justice, with eBay trying to force Joltid to let it continue using the technology.
In a quarterly report filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, eBay said in no uncertain terms that if it lost the right to use the software it would most likely have to shut Skype down.
eBay said it was working on developing ‘‘alternative software’’ to that licensed through Joltid, but this ‘‘may not be successful, may result in loss of functionality or customers even if successful, and will in any event be expensive’’.
‘‘If Skype was to lose the right to use the Joltid software as the result of the litigation, and if alternative software was not available, Skype would be severely and adversely affected and the continued operation of Skype’s business as currently conducted would likely not be possible,’’ eBay wrote.
In the filing eBay also said that, even if it was successful in developing alternative software, the technical challenge of assuring backward compatibility with older versions of Skype’s technology ‘‘may be difficult to overcome’’.
This was echoed by analysts, with the Info-Tech Research Group’s Jayanth Angl telling Bloomberg that ‘‘it would be quite difficult to replace what they already have as the underlying component to their service’’.
‘‘There are a number of barriers to that, not the least of which are legal barriers,” he said.
The case is set to go to trial in June next year, which could seriously hinder eBay’s plans to spin Skype off as a separate company in a public stock offering next year.
Already, eBay has had to write down Skype on its books to $US1.7 billion, an admission that the business is not worth nearly as much as it originally paid for it. However, its revenues for the second quarter grew 25 per cent to $US170 million.
But, even though Skype has not been a major financial success, it has succeeded in becoming the dominant internet telephony service globally.
Skype has more than 480 million user accounts - almost twice as many as Facebook - and the application comes bundled with more than 50 mobile phones and even the Sony PSP.