In a move that threatens to stifle future competition in commercial web services, Amazon.com has filed a "patent application for an online marketplace where consumers search and pay for web services," reports CNET News.com. This comprehensive patent claim, if granted, looks at first glance sufficient to give Amazon a monopoly of the commercial web services market, comprising as it does a generic definition of virtually every component you would look for in a web services marketplace. The application is, of course, nothing more than a ragbag of prior art and generalization masquerading as proprietary innovation. But when you realize that, as CNET reminds us in its story, the US Patent and Trademark Office has already granted Amazon a patent on the idea that "gifts such as dolls should be wrapped in pink paper," then it suddenly seems likely that the online retailer will get handed this immensely valuable market advantage on a plate.
Thankfully, the European Parliament earlier this month threw out a similar proposal to implement this kind of patent nonsense in Europe. The US government ought to do the same. Handing generic patents like these to businesses does the exact opposite of protecting innovation; it strangles it at birth. I have no objection whatsover to Amazon.com setting up a web services marketplace indeed, it would make enormous sense for Loosely Coupled to become an affiliate (if there's any chance of us ever getting accepted after this rant). Nor do I object to Amazon.com implementing that marketplace in patented proprietary software code (or perhaps that should be 'copyright' rather than 'patented' David Berlind has just done a great job of explaining how the two forms of intellectual property protection relate to software).
But to have a patent on the generic business processes inherent in operating such a marketplace means that all potential competitors are instantly at a disadvantage, with the result that liquidity, competition and innovation between web services providers and the marketplace(s) supporting them would be stymied. US citizens should worry about this, not least because it means that competitors operating in overseas jurisdictions where US patents may be less rigorously enforced could enjoy a much more fertile environment for innovation, giving them the opportunity to win global market share at the expense of US businesses including Amazon.com itself.
I mentioned prior art. I can think of no end of examples, past and present, from both the web services sector and the application service provider (ASP) sector before it, that have already implemented, either in whole or in part, the methods claimed as patentable inventions in Amazon.com's application. Indeed, several of them are web services standards. For example (and this is just a short list off the top of my head):
I'm no patent expert, so maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe it's a good thing that Amazon.com has filed this application so that it can be thrown out and no one ever again wastes the time of the overworked PTO staff on such a bald attempt to monopolize the open commercial market in web services. The pity of it is that the marketplace described in the patent application has been very well thought through and I eagerly await its arrival as a commercial offering. Just, please, don't throttle this market by attempting to own as proprietary intellectual property the business processes that are self-evidently required to operate such a marketplace. This is not the first time I've highlighted the absurdity of patents owned by Amazon.com and others, although on that occasion I took a more light-hearted view. This, however, has gone beyond a joke.