(Formerly) Boycott Amazon!
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Why we boycott Amazon
Amazon has obtained a US patent (5,960,411) on an important and obvious idea for E-commerce: an idea sometimes known as one-click purchasing. The idea is that your command in a web browser to buy a certain item can carry along information about your identity. (It works by sending the server a “cookie”, a kind of ID code that your browser received previously from the same server.)
Amazon has sued to block the use of this simple idea, showing that they truly intend to monopolize it. This is an attack against the World Wide Web and against E-commerce in general.
The idea patented here is just that a company can give you something which you can subsequently show them to identify yourself for credit. This is nothing new: a physical credit card does the same job, after all. But the US Patent Office issues patents on obvious and well-known ideas every day. Sometimes the result is a disaster.
Today Amazon is suing one large company. If this were just a dispute between two companies, it would not be an important public issue. But the patent gives Amazon the power over anyone who runs a web site in the US (and any other countries that give them similar patents)—power to control all use of this technique. Although only one company is being sued today, the issue affects the whole Internet.
Amazon is not alone at fault in what is happening. The US Patent Office is to blame for having very low standards, and US courts are to blame for endorsing them. And US patent law is to blame for authorizing patents on information-manipulating techniques and patterns of communication—a policy that is harmful in general.
Foolish government policies gave Amazon the opportunity—but an opportunity is not an excuse. Amazon made the choice to obtain this patent, and the choice to use it in court for aggression. The ultimate moral responsibility for Amazon's actions lies with Amazon's executives.
We can hope that the court will find this patent is legally invalid. Whether they do so will depend on detailed facts and obscure technicalities. The patent uses piles of semi-relevant detail to make this “invention” look like something subtle.
But we do not have to wait passively for the court to decide the freedom of E-commerce. There is something we can do right now: we can refuse to do business with Amazon. Please do not buy anything from Amazon until they promise to stop using this patent to threaten or restrict other web sites.
If you are the author of a book sold by Amazon, you can provide powerful help to this campaign by putting this text into the “author comment” about your book, on Amazon's web site. (Alas, it appears they are refusing to post these comments for authors.)
If you have suggestions, or if you simply support the boycott, please send mail to <[email protected]> to let us know.
Amazon's response to people who write about the patent contains a subtle misdirection which is worth analyzing:
The patent system is designed to encourage innovation, and we spent thousands of hours developing our 1-ClickR shopping feature.
If they did spend thousands of hours, they surely did not spend it thinking of the general technique that the patent covers. So if they are telling the truth, what did they spend those hours doing?
Perhaps they spent some of the time writing the patent application. That task was surely harder than thinking of the technique. Or perhaps they are talking about the time it took designing, writing, testing, and perfecting the scripts and the web pages to handle one-click shopping. That was surely a substantial job. Looking carefully at their words, it seems the “thousands of hours developing” could include either of these two jobs.
But the issue here is not about the details in their particular scripts (which they do not release to us) and web pages (which are copyrighted anyway). The issue here is the general idea, and whether Amazon should have a monopoly on that idea.
Are you, or I, free to spend the necessary hours writing our own scripts, our own web pages, to provide one-click shopping? Even if we are selling something other than books, are we free to do this? That is the question. Amazon seeks to deny us that freedom, with the eager help of a misguided US government.
When Amazon sends out cleverly misleading statements like the one quoted above, it demonstrates something important: they do care what the public thinks of their actions. They must care—they are a retailer. Public disgust can affect their profits.
People have pointed out that the problem of software patents is much bigger than Amazon, that other companies might have acted just the same, and that boycotting Amazon won't directly change patent law. Of course, these are all true. But that is no argument against this boycott!
If we mount the boycott strongly and lastingly, Amazon may eventually make a concession to end it. And even if they do not, the next company which has an outrageous software patent and considers suing someone will realize there can be a price to pay. They may have second thoughts.
The boycott can also indirectly help change patent law—by calling attention to the issue and spreading demand for change. And it is so easy to participate that there is no need to be deterred on that account. If you agree about the issue, why not boycott Amazon?
To help spread the word, please put a note about the boycott on your own personal web page, and on institutional pages as well if you can. Make a link to this page; updated information will be placed here.
Why the Boycott Continues Given that the Suit has Settled
Amazon.com reported in March 2002 that it had settled its long-running patent-infringement suit against Barnes & Noble over its 1-Click checkout system. The details of the settlement were not disclosed.
Since the terms were not disclosed, we have no way of knowing whether this represents a defeat for Amazon such as would justify ending the boycott. Thus, we encourage everyone to continue the boycott.
Updates and Links
In this section, we list updates and links about issues related to Amazon.com, their business practices, and stories related to the boycott. New information is added to the bottom of this section.
Tim O'Reilly has sent Amazon an open letter disapproving of the use of this patent, stating the position about as forcefully as possible given an unwillingness to stop doing business with them.
Nat Friedman wrote in with an Amazon Boycott success story.
On the side, Amazon is doing other obnoxious things in another courtroom, too.