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Thursday, July 28, 2005

More patent nonsense from Amazon

In a move that threatens to stifle future competition in commercial web services, has filed a "patent application for an online marketplace where consumers search and pay for web services," reports CNET 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 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 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 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'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 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 and others, although on that occasion I took a more light-hearted view. This, however, has gone beyond a joke.

UPDATE: [added July 30, also some further links and minor edits to the above] Now CNET reports that Google is trying to patent contextual ads in syndication feeds. I dunno, maybe the pair of them have secretly teamed up to conclusively discredit the software patenting system by simultaneously pursuing the most provocatively frivolous applications they could dream up? Over on Slashdot, the discussion of Amazon's patent application is the usual mixture of mindless flaming and trolling with occasional worthwhile contributions. One comment recalls the open interchange on the subject of patents that took place in early 2000 between Tim O'Reilly and Amazon's Jeff Bezos. Looking at the Open letter from Jeff Bezos on the subject of patents, dated March 9th, 2000, I note two specific commitments that Jeff made:

  1. Lobby for the creation ("it could take 2 years or more") of a new "fast patents" system and
  2. "to help fund a prior art database" that Tim O'Reilly had proposed setting up.

Perhaps it's time for Jeff to give us all an update on progress with those efforts?

posted by Phil Wainewright 7:46 PM (GMT) | comments | link

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