Tim O'Reilly and Jeff Bezos debate online patents

In late February, online giant Amazon received its second patent for Web technology, prompting open source publisher Tim O'Reilly to publish an open letter to the company, asking it to stop all attempts at enforcing those patents. Amazon's "one-click ordering" patent had already resulted in a court order against Barnes & Noble, which had implemented a similar "one-click" system, prompting users to complain that such a feature was an obvious one for any eCommerce vendor and that Amazon shouldn't have a stranglehold on such a thing.

O'Reilly's open letter to Amazon finally stated the obvious: Amazon's acquisition of a patent for this process was questionable at best.

"Your patent fails to meet even the most rudimentary tests for novelty and non-obviousness to an expert in the field," O'Reilly stated. "The fundamental technology on which Amazon's one-click implementation is based is the use of 'cookies', ... which was introduced in 1994 into Netscape Navigator by Lou Montulli ...and others... The technique had been deployed on thousands of sites well in advance of your 1997 patent application."

O'Reilly corrected noted that the rapid advances achieved with Web technology would be "choked off" if companies were able to secure patents for "commonly accepted and obvious techniques "in an attempt to keep competitors from using them." But it was Amazon's second patent that prompted the letter: Amazon had recently secured a second patent, this time for its affiliates program.

Finally, O'Reilly got his reply, personally, from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Bezos and O'Reilly discussed the implications of Amazon's patents and the results were somewhat surprising. Bezos claims that the one-click patent had nothing to do with its implementation, which he admitted was trivial, but with its "innovation" in allowing users to quickly and easily purchase products without going through the convoluted "shopping cart" approach then used by every other eCommerce site.

Bezos wishes Amazon had more patents--it's sales ranking publication was an example--because it might otherwise eventually face companies that may be able to put them out of business using methods it innovated.

"We don't want to be another Netscape," Bezos said. "WalMart is 70 times the size of amazon.com, and there is no reason to believe they are hesitant to use their market power. B&N isn't doing any innovation at all on the Web--all they do is copy Amazon feature for feature, sometimes down to the exact wording. Is that right? How would you feel if Amazon ended up being acquired by WalMart as Netscape was acquired by AOL?"

The patent dispute raises some interesting issues, but this transcends a mere intellectual debate. The issues raised here may eventually dictate the shape of eCommerce. And that's something that will eventually effect everyone. For more information, check out Tim O'Reilly's discussion with Jeff Bezos on the O'Reilly Web site

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