This was going to be a fun column. I was all prepared to unleash a barrage of righteous indignation, add my voice to a call for boycott and be generally indignant about yet another big-business money grab.
But the best laid schemes o’ editors an’ men gang aft a-gley.
As of press time, the main players in the drama have modified their positions and opened a dialogue – steps guaranteed to leach the acrimony out of any good fight.
Here’s the story about which I was going to be incensed: last October Amazon.com was granted a patent for its 1-Click buying process. 1-Click allows previously-registered shoppers to make purchases without re-entering billing and shipping information. Within nine days of receiving the patent, Amazon went after arch-rival Barnesandnoble.com and won a preliminary injunction, forcing the competitor to discontinue its own one-click option.
Clearly, the patent was nothing more than an underhanded ploy aimed at harming an opponent. Amazon’s 1-Click is, after all, a fairly garden-variety use of cookie technology. Cookies allow a Web site to store information on your hard drive so the site can identify you on subsequent visits, and that is all Amazon was doing. The company did not invent cookies, but it certainly felt justified in patenting this functionality and preventing others from exploiting it.
And there is a larger picture here. Amazon built its business on the Web, a medium created and characterized by free software. Want to build a Web site? Go ahead, there’s no licensing fee on HTML. Need a Web server and a back-end e-mail package? Use Apache and sendmail, both are free.
Amazon’s actions, therefore, fly into the face of the spirit of the Web, a medium without which Amazon would not exist.
The company’s actions have recently been publicized by Tim O’Reilly, president of book publisher O’Reilly and Associates. He writes about the issue at length at www.oreilly.com/ask_tim. O’Reilly was himself recruited to the cause by open-source poster-boy Richard M. Stallman who initiated the campaign to boycott Amazon (www.gnu.org/philosophy/amazon.html).
I believe both Stallman and O’Reilly are on-target in their criticism of Amazon, and I was going to support the boycott. This action would not have caused a precipitous plunge in Amazon’s stock, as I have never purchased anything from the company, but it was a statement that patenting Web functionality is offensive.
Since then, however, Amazon has become more reasonable, and my indignation – which I was greatly enjoying – has thus been diluted. Amazon president Jeff Bezos had several conversations with O’Reilly and read some of the 10,000 postings to O’Reilly’s anti-Amazon petition, and has now said he will re-examine his position. Bezos has not renounced the patent, but he is promising to pursue litigation with care. He is also calling on Washington to reform the entire patent system. Check out his position at www.amazon.com/patents.
While Bezos’ moves are probably a stalling tactic – governments everywhere move slowly – he has at least promised to proceed with moderation. This is a victory of sorts for the Web community, and I suppose I will withdraw my call for a cross-Canada boycott of Amazon. You may sleep peacefully, Jeff, pending further developments.