No More Pesos for Senor Bezos
Monday, February 28, 2000 by Dave Winer.
On Friday I got an email with a pointer to a TechWeb article on a new Amazon.Com patent, this one even more offensive than the last. Amazon claimed to own the idea of affiliate programs, and the US Patent and Trademark Office had granted them a patent, number 6,029,141.
Unlike some who have taken patents as a defensive measure, Amazon clearly has a different purpose, as illustrated in their suit against Barnes and Noble over the 1-Click patent. Now their business model is clear. They will be able to raise prices by the cost of their license fees. This will get them out of the red, and force their competitors to withdraw. When that is done, if it's allowed to happen, there will be a single e-commerce vendor, Amazon.
Now, it would be an interesting conundrum if there was an aha in there. Something brilliant that no one else had thought of. On a brilliance scale of 1 to 10, the Amazon affiliate idea is a zero. It's a repurposing of multi-tier marketing, and has been in wide use for decades. All they did was apply that idea to the Web.
Amazon is betting that Internet users don't care. But the eToys vs eToy issue proves otherwise. When an Internet company moves too aggressively they'll eventually have to listen to their customers. The issue for customers is fairly simple. If Amazon has no competition, prices are sure to go up, and further, the competitive environment of the Web will die.
Please think about this. The users of the Internet have been beneficiaries of an unfettered competitive environment. As an industry we are famous for moving quickly, partially because the technology is so exciting, and also because the rewards are so huge. We're in a very sweet spot, we *can* move quickly because we invested and it worked. The Web is going places, as long as companies like Amazon are not allowed to own the growth.
In a Q&A session yesterday at Stanford, an Amazon shareholder said "I own 100 shares of Amazon.Com, and I wonder if you can tell me what it is exactly that I own." Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, said that she owned "a piece of the future."
This is the bug. Let's fix it.
The Amazon situation raises an important question. Are users of the Internet powerless? Well, no.
If we guessed correctly that Amazon is moving aggressively with patents to force a shakeout among their competitors, then customers can turn the jets in the other direction. It's quite simple. Buy from their competition, now, while they still exist. That would be an example of the Internet routing around an outage, something it's famous for.
In other words, until Amazon stops using its patents as a competitive weapon, Internet users would be advised to adopt this slogan: "No more pesos for Senor Bezos." This emphasizes that the Internet is international. Maybe this is an US-versus-everyone else issue? I'd leave the US over this one.
Another thing to do, if you run a Web site and point to Amazon, stop doing that. And if you're part of their affiliate program, resign. And if you're a book author that sells through Amazon, develop a relationship with another online bookseller. That should make a few waves at Amazon and elsewhere. Put fear into the minds of any technology exec that would use a patent as a weapon to limit competition.
We've had an excellent exploration of the Web patent issue on Scripting News over the weekend. If you're interested in understanding where I'm coming from, as a software developer and innovator, read this piece I wrote on Saturday:
It's a bit rambly, but makes a key point. I don't want lawyers to run my development team, and I don't want to compete against teams of lawyers. I love the competitive environment we have, it's how I learn and grow, and how my users and customers get new features, and why we strive to offer faster servers and more reliable systems, and respond to users' feature requests.
We know that if we don't keep moving, because our customers have choices, we will lose. That's how the technology market has always worked, and how it should continue to work. It's how users are guaranteed that if I fail to innovate they will have choice. The patent system, as it's currently implemented by the USPTO is threatening that system.
Patents are a divisive issue among technology insiders, but it shouldn't be divisive for users. The users have a clear interest in diversity. It's time to think, because if we keep going on the same course, things are going to change, imho, for the worse.
Then I came up with an idea for a business process patent. Here's how it goes.
"A method for eliminating competition consists of filing a patent application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office combined with campaign contributions to major political parties, so as to cause competitors to be unable to offer certain high-value features or raise investment capital."
What do you think?
Finally, out of all this michegas comes a positive idea. Let's create an intellectual property database like IBM's that documents unpatented prior art, so that lawyers defending against patent suits will be as well-informed as those on the other side.
I wanted to get the ancient outliners on the Web last year so that we could safely move back into outlining without fear of patent lawsuits. As long as we stick to unpatented functionality in ThinkTank, Ready and MORE, we are safe. This body of prior art dates back to the mid-80s, before the USPTO was granting software patents.
Same with MacBird, which we released in Open Source at the beginning of the year. It also predates the USPTO policy change.
Every technologist can and should do the same. If you created software or business processes prior to the early-mid 90s, document your work and put it on the Web. Let's get a search engine to index your site.This is something the Web can do better than any previous medium. We have search engines and hierarchy managing software, Homestead, Epinions, Yahoo, Atomz and Google, all the tools are out there, we just have to invest.
Let's do something good for the Net. Let's love the Net instead of sucking the life out of it. In other words, ask not what the Internet can do for you, as Amazon does, ask what you can do for the Internet.