WEEKLY WEB WATCH: Amazon scores PR points from shift on ’one-click’ patent issue

Boycott Amazon! It’s not an unfamiliar cry, and it has been heard over everything from privacy issues to some of the books Amazon sells.

Boycott Amazon! It’s not an unfamiliar cry, and it has been heard over everything from privacy issues to some of the books Amazon sells.

Boycott Amazon! It’s not an unfamiliar cry, and it has been heard

over everything from privacy issues to some of the books Amazon

sells.



But lately the call has been heard not just from fanatics or people who

seem to make a living calling for boycotts of all kinds. They’ve come

from other Web merchants - and not just ones who happen to compete with

Amazon.



The reason is the patents that Amazon has taken out on ’one-click

ordering’ and affiliate marketing. Both have become such a part of the

e-commerce landscape that almost every major Web retailer now does them,

but they won’t be able to in the future, should Amazon succeed in any

attempt to enforce its patents, as it is already trying to do against

its rival Barnesandnoble.com.



To critics, Amazon has patented trivial applications of technologies

that were developed in an open environment in which everyone was allowed

to build on and effectively ’leapfrog’ the innovation that had gone

before.



To them, introducing patents on Internet software and business models

into such an environment is not only against the spirit of the

Internet’s ’gift economy,’ it is a kick in the face to all the

developers who made Amazon’s own innovations possible in the first

place. And more importantly, using patents and other legal obstacles to

fence off the Internet, which arguably has brought greater economic

growth and prosperity in a shorter time than any other technical

development in history, will put a real brake on that growth and

prosperity.



Amazon, widely seen as an innovator that deserves its status as the very

symbol of Net-economy success, is suddenly getting bad press. And not

just bad press, but bad e-mail, a groundswell of anti-Amazon feeling and

those boycott calls. More than 10,000 people put their names to an ’open

letter to Amazon’ posted on the Web site of technical publisher O’Reilly

& Associates by the company’s CEO, Tim O’Reilly. The technical bias of

Amazon’s core and most loyal customers regularly places O’Reilly books

in the Amazon best-seller lists. And these are the people who care most

passionately about the long-term implications of the example Amazon is

setting with its patents.



So it’s only natural that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos should take

notice when O’Reilly tells him that he is effectively ’pissing in the

well,’ damaging the future not only of the unique economy that has grown

up around the Internet, but also of his own company. But despite

numerous calls to back the ’boycott Amazon’ camp, O’Reilly has held

back. Instead, he has chosen to use his influence and access to Bezos to

try persuasion instead. In an exchange of e-mails and phone calls,

reported on the O’Reilly site (www.oreilly.com), Bezos has gradually

shifted his position. While not renouncing Amazon’s patents, he is now

calling for a reform of the patent system itself. Bezos suggests a

special category for software and business-model patents with only a

three-to-five-year term instead of the current 17.



Bezos’s change of heart received just about as much press as the outcry

over the Amazon patents did in the first place. Would such a reform of

the patent system ever see the light of day? Who cares? In a single

gesture, Bezos can recast himself from villain to one of the good guys.

And that’s what PR is all about.



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