Amazon patent concerns heat up

Last week, I reported on the ongoing debate between Amazon's Jeff Bezos and publishing legend Tim O'Reilly, who had called Bezos to task for securing yet-another patent related to online technology. Bezos responded with an open letter asking for the overhauling of the patent process, which was slightly ironic given the fact that his company had already secured several questionable patents using the existing "broken" system. O'Reilly and Bezos have talked numerous times since the initial debate and though we still appear to be a long way from a solution.

"In talking with Jeff about the details of his patents and why he thought they were original, I was struck by how different his sense of what he had 'invented' was from the sense I got by reading the patents themselves, and from commentary I'd read on the net," O'Reilly reports.

Online users are up in arms over Amazon's acquisition of a patent for its "1-click" technology, which allows Amazon customers to store preferred shipping and billing information so that items may be purchased using literally one click of the mouse button. Opponents argue that this feature relies on Web features that were implemented on thousands of sites before Amazon. O'Reilly explains why this patent isn't as dubious as it first appears.

"In the case of 1-click, the patent claims look to a casual reader as if they broadly cover the use of saved state to make it possible to conduct an e-commerce transaction without forcing the user to identify him or herself," O'Reilly says. "In fact, they cover only the single 'point and click' aspect, such that the sale is made without any confirmation step. In short, this patent is far \[narrower\] than it might at first appear. And in fact, Amazon did an incredibly successful job of making 1-click an easy-to-use feature."

Amazon's second highly publicized patent involved its Associates program, where users can refer their own customers to Amazon's site, securing a small payment when something is purchased. Again, opponents argue that the patent is far too broad, encompassing technology that many sites use.

"In the case of the Associates patent, what is being patented is not the broad idea of referral marketing, but instead a mechanism that allows individuals on the net to establish a little virtual bookstore on their site, with fulfillment by Amazon, entirely on their own, without having to negotiate a business deal with Amazon," O'Reilly explains. "In effect, Amazon ... \[allows\] others to use Amazon as a service. This was in fact a really nice piece of engineering, and a foretaste of things to come as next-generation web sites start to publish XML-based APIs for content syndication or for business transactions. Jeff points out that at the time the Associates program was introduced, there was plenty of commentary by folks like Esther Dyson hailing it as a real innovation."

But O'Reilly still doesn't agree with the validity of Amazon's patents, arguing that the current freewheeling environment in the computer industry is key to its rapid expansion and success. If Amazon is able to continually prevent other companies from helping their customers by using similar functionality to that on the Amazon Web site, it will effectively cripple the industry's ability to expand. And it will do so using technology that was developed elsewhere, even if that technology was honed to a certain degree, as Amazon claims, for its own site.

"The Net was not built on proprietary technologies," says Harvard Law school professor Lawrence Lessig, an expert on legal aspects of the online world.

For more information, please read Tim O'Reilly's discussion of this important and potentially volatile situation

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