A lawsuit filed in Seattle accusing eBay unit Skype of improperly seizing money in inactive customer accounts will be settled with a small credit to users and a change in policy, says an attorney. Also, a Seattle design firm builds its showrooms from a stack of cargo containers.

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Can the virtually free Internet-calling service Skype be ripping off its customers? So contends a lawsuit filed in federal court in Seattle against Skype, the communications unit of e-commerce giant eBay.

But the lawyers behind the suit say an imminent settlement will change the company’s policies and refund a little money to as many as 3 million U.S. consumers.

Skype users can call around the world, paying nothing when they connect computer-to-computer and only a penny or two a minute when they call conventional phones — SkypeOut calls, in company lingo.

But unless they buy a monthly subscription, users must open a $10 “stored value account” for SkypeOut calls. Customers who don’t tap that account for 180 days forfeit any money that’s left, according to company rules.

That’s both unfair and against the law, asserts the lawsuit filed by Seattle attorneys Roger Townsend and Daniel Johnson.

The account is like a gift card, argues Johnson, and many states including Washington have laws prohibiting expiration dates on such cards.

Even if the terms of service of a site like Skype require users to agree they could lose the money, “the gift-card statute says you can’t agree to that,” he says.

Johnson said final details of a settlement with Skype are being drawn up and should be filed shortly. “It’s just a formality,” he says. Skype’s parent company did not return a call seeking comment.

The federal suit filed two weeks ago was itself part of the deal; attorneys first sued Skype in state courts here and in California last winter, and the company agreed to work out a settlement if it applies nationwide, Johnson says.

How many Skype customers have lost money through forfeited accounts? “The estimate we got from Skype is about 3 million nationwide,” says Johnson.

The tentative deal calls for a $1.8 million settlement fund, which — after deducting fees and costs of about 25 percent — will give a credit of up to $4 to Skype users who file a claim. (Four dollars is more than was forfeited in the average account, Johnson says.)

The downside: A credit is not as meaningful as cash, and it will be spread a lot thinner if all 3 million make claims. But Johnson says he doesn’t expect more than half to file. Typically, only 8 percent of eligible claimants stake their claims in such class settlements, he says.

More importantly, perhaps, Skype will end the practice of seizing inactive accounts. “The main thing we got through the settlement is the change — they stopped doing it,” Johnson says.

Design firm

thinks inside

the cargo box

A dozen recycled cargo containers are the main material in DA Stark Interiors’ two new Georgetown showrooms, scheduled to open next month.

Lego-like, the buildings are each made of twin, three-high stacks of steel containers. Rectangular and round windows were cut into each building.

It’s apparently the first commercial building in Seattle built from used cargo containers.

Jay Stark and his wife and partner, Dixie, got the idea from an article in Wired Magazine about a house that was made from containers.

“We wanted to be able to build something quickly,” Jay Stark says. He calls it “the greenest project in Seattle,” noting that “by weight, 80 percent of our project is recycled material.”

The containers were bright blue when Dixie acquired them, but now they’re painted a dark shade of olive green.

Wallboard covers some of the containers’ inside walls, but in other spots the original corrugated sides were left showing. “We want people to know what they were built out of,” says JayStark.

The buildings are across the street from the Seattle Design Center. Jay Stark says Dixie wanted to “piggyback” off the other interior design businesses in the Georgetown neighborhood, but didn’t like the industrial feel of the available warehouses. .

Cargo containers also are a good value, Stark says. “At the end of the day, we will have a steel-frame construction building for the price of a wood-frame construction building.”

Most of the rainfall on the building will be absorbed by colorful, drought-tolerant succulents planted in 4 inches of dirt on the roof.

“Just about none of the water that hits our property ever goes to the sewer system,” says Stark.

The water that’s not soaked up by the garden “drains into a manufactured wetland for the birds in the back,” says Joel Egan, a principal and co-founder of HyBrid Architecture, the firm that designed the buildings.

The two companies wound up in a dispute over the copyright for the project. Stark says his company used HyBrid’s designs, but “released” the firm after the project’s design phase. Egan won’t talk about the dispute but insists that “the design is absolutely” HyBrid’s.

Such issues aside, Stark says “We think this is really a showcase of what could be done” with recycled cargo containers.

— Kaitlin Strohschein

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