First Come, First Sue

Patents on everyday Web innovations could hurt large and small e-businesses.
Magazine Contributor
2 min read

This story appears in the June 2000 issue of . Subscribe »

How fast is your Web site shopping checkout? Just one click? How do you bring new customers to your Web site? Through partner sites? You may be infringing on an Amazon.com patent and not even know it. Much to the chagrin of the Net community, Amazon.com patented its "1-Click" checkout in 1999 and its affiliate-program technology this year.

Both patents fall under the vague "business method" patent category that allows 17 years of protection. If it sounds like a far-off threat, it's not: Amazon.com didn't hesitate to bring a case against Barnesandnoble.com for its version of the 1-click checkout. The case is still pending, but Barnesandnoble.com had to change its system in the meantime. Amazon.com's patents have prompted a Net boycott. NoWebPatents.org and noamazon.com (www.noamazon.com) are two such boycott headquarters. NoWebPatents.org claims its ranks amount to about 3,900 lost customers.

A call-to-action campaign headed by computer book publisher Tim O'Reilly (www.oreilly.com) has garnered a response from Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos. Amazon.com won't give up its patents, but Bezos has launched a call for patent reform. Included in his letter posted on Amazon.com, Bezos calls for a retroactive three- to five-year patent time limit, a public comment period and the creation of a database of prior art to aid the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in making decisions.

While Amazon.com isn't likely to hunt infringing small businesses online, it's just one of many companies patenting seemingly obvious Web technology. A rash of Web patents and lawsuits could threaten the wide-open frontier of e-commerce for large and small businesses alike.

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