December 2003

From: Stephen R. Laniel
Subject: Did Amazon Listen?

Hey Tim,

Within the last year or two, I remember reading on the Ask Tim site that Jeff Bezos had agreed to slow down Amazon's overzealous patent filing, but that Amazon would continue to enforce its outstanding patents (like the 1-click patent). Now I see this News.com article: Amazon wins patent for ordering forms.

What's going on? Did I misunderstand what Bezos said he'd do? Was it a non-binding agreement whose non-bindingness he took very literally? Did he flat-out lie? I was hoping for some real progress from the largest web retailer, but we appear to have come up short.

Keep up the good work,
Steve


Actually, what Jeff told me was that Amazon would indeed continue to file for patents, but that they'd think twice before using them again offensively, as they did against BN.com. Obviously, the PR backlash alone would make that a prudent move, but I believe that Jeff also understood my argument that it's unwise to stop the game of open innovation on the web that has been so much to the benefit of Amazon. Jeff went with me to Washington to lobby for change to the patent system (see my talking points for the visit to D.C.), but he also made very clear that as long as that system was in place, and competitors were filing patents, Amazon would also continue to do so.

If I were in his shoes, I'd do the same thing. Even Richard Stallman and other free software leaders have argued that free software and open source developers ought to file some patents, since having your own patents is one way to defend against lawsuits by other parties. [ See Stallman on the Harm of Patents: An Exchange Between Richard Stallman and Tim O'Reilly. ] That's in fact the patent game that is played by large companies, with the companies that have smaller stacks of patents typically paying license fees to make up the difference.

So you won't see me protesting Amazon filing patents. You'll only see me protesting again if Amazon, or anyone else, starts using them aggressively to extort money from others. You might be interested to know that O'Reilly testified in Microsoft's defense during the Eolas patent litigation. (We believed that we had prior art, although the way the current patent rules tilt the playing field in favor of the patent holder meant we didn't prevail in the first round.) We're also part of the W3C's request for a re-exam on that patent.

So we oppose the patent bullies, not those who are filing patents just in case someone else sues them.

[ For articles and columns related to Amazon's 1-click patent, see The Amazon Patent Controversy archive. And visit Tim's Software and Business Method Patents page, and the O'Reilly Network's Policy DevCenter for additional reading. ]

Tim

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