Speaking of the Cluetrain
Friday, March 10, 2000 by Dave Winer.
The battle over Amazon's use of patents escalated overnight.
But first an observation. Had Bezos not posted his open letter yesterday, the issue probably would have faded away. It got very little coverage, just an article in Wired News, and unbeknownst to me, an op-ed piece in the Irish Times by Karlin Lillington.
"Maybe it's those continuously absent profits that have warped the company's attitudes. Whatever the cause, book-to-kitchen-sinkseller Amazon seems to be manifesting some serious corporate personality defects. In short, Amazon is acquiring the attitude and intentions of an Internet bully."
Lillington received a response to her Irish Times piece from Amazon spokesperson Bill Curry.
He said: "Bullying? Greedy? Warped? Tell us what you really think! Try visiting www.amazon.com/patents. And before you run any more misguided stuff, maybe you should talk to us. And you'll also want to visit www.oreilly.com for a better understanding of the patents."
She forwarded the email to me with this comment: "I have never in 5 years of working as a tech journalist received such a rude reply from anyone I've written about -- much less the company spokesman for a high-profile firm."
It is unusual! Even so, I followed Curry's links.
I re-read what Bezos says. Taken at face value, he gave the issue some thought, and found that he truly cares about the Internet, and understands that freedom of expression, not just in writing, but in technology, is essential to what the Internet is. He's having second thoughts about using patents as a competitive weapon. I think this is great!
But as much as I like the spirit of what he says, I still see that he is using patents to limit competition. How you say it is not as important as what you say. The patents are still there and are still being used to limit competition.
I also went to O'Reilly, at Curry's suggestion, and re-read his essays, but he doesn't think Amazon is clear of the problem.
Finally Curry says we should talk to him to avoid being misguided. But honestly, who would want to?
Most companies use extra care when communicating with their adversaries.
I used to love Amazon. When I saw their ad in the New York Times Book Review I cheered. Earth's Largest Bookstore. Go Internet!! I felt like I was on their team and vice versa.
Now I am on the opposing team.
Jean-Louis Gassee, my virtual uncle, used to say when he was product chief at Apple: "As the monkey climbs the tree, more people can see his bottom." This is good advice for Amazon if you want to try to understand what's happening. You became important. People have opinions about what you do. This is natural, to be expected, and good for you.
And to those who believe I have something personal against Amazon, I've bent over backwards to make it clear that it's not personal. Let me state it very clearly. Amazon is a foil, we're using them, to expose the issue, and in doing so, are fighting with companies who have not yet chosen to take their claims to court.
Due to an accident of history, Amazon is first, but there are plenty of companies waiting in the wings, watching what's happening, deciding what they will do with *their* patents. That's the sub-text.
A harrowing question raised by Sun people I met with on Wednesday.
Has Microsoft filed a patent application on XML-RPC technology? Since Microsoft cites me as a supporter of their work (I am), and since patents take a few years to pass through the USPTO, I must find a way to ask this question without provoking the usual "You Don't Love Us" response from Microsoft, which I find intimidating because it puts me on the defensive.
Then I realized something about Microsoft. To most people, including people at Microsoft, you're either anti-Microsoft or pro-Microsoft. Then thinking about it some more, this isn't just true of Microsoft. It's also true of Apple. And it's true of Linux and Open Source. And Amazon! And it's not just about computers either. It's pretty much everywhere. And it's total bullshit.
The Cluetrain Manifesto, which both Bezos and O'Reilly cite in their essays, says a lot about this. If a market is a conversation, is it acceptable if it's an immature conversation? Neither Amazon or Microsoft need my love or support to survive. I am not their mother. I may ask questions, and they deserve direct answers. This is how adults relate to other adults. First answer the question, and then we'll see if I love you, or if I'm scared of you.
Christopher Locke, one of the Cluetrain authors, mentions the Bezos-O'Reilly public posts as evidence of their clued-in-ness.
But Chris, how would you feel if the art you practiced were subject to the kinds of nonsense rules the USPTO is trying to foist on software developers?
Could you have published Cluetrain if Tom Peters had the patent on books that help businesses use technology?
Something to think about?
My theory is that Amazon has been using us to have a conversation with Barnes and Noble. I believe Bezos, if he takes a step back, will realize that it's not actually worth the trouble, and that he can score big by relenting, because in doing so he can make it less likely that anyone else will use a patent as a weapon.
He can help us win the war with Geoworks, for example, and help fight back against Priceline. In other words, there's an AHA waiting for Bezos and his board members. An opportunity to get it, to help the Internet, instead of exploiting the Internet. If you help the Internet, I believe you will get the support of the Internet, and that's powerful stuff.
(What is The Internet? It's a virtual groupware thing, but very real, like The Stock Market.)
O'Reilly made a very strong point in his initial essay. We have all been the beneficiaries of a mountain of free ideas. Let's have more of those, not less. Amazon's improvements to the Web, while useful and innovative, are tiny little bumps on the mountain, yet they stand in the way of its growth. That is what I want Bezos to respond to.
Fredrik Lundh sent a pointer to a San Francisco company, Katiesoft, who says: "Katiesoft provides partners and portals a super sticky Internet opportunity, backed by patent protected features no one can imitate."
Now I know not to use their software until they change their way of doing business, and if you care about the Internet you do too.
Finally, there was a lot of interest in a Tuesday night meeting in Phoenix to discuss these issues, so we will have it.
Tim O'Reilly and Doc Searls will be there, and Lawrence Lessig, Dan Gillmor and Esther Dyson have been invited.
If you're going to be at Esther's you're invited too.
Looking forward to it.
PS: One more thing. "Ask not what the Internet can do for you, ask what you can do for the Internet." It's an open source slogan. Anyone can adopt it, put it on your website or your business card, or write a song about it. It's you and me and everyone else. It's even bigger than our planet, imho.