March 9, 2000 1:35 PM PST

Amazon CEO sees solutions in patent reform

Under fire for patenting some of Amazon.com's Web site features, chief executive Jeff Bezos called for patent reform in a letter posted today on the company's Web site.

Bezos said the company would not stop the use or enforcement of its patents. But he called for lawmakers and industry leaders to examine the issue of software and business-method patents and to work toward limiting the number issued and their duration.

"I strongly doubt whether our giving up our patents would really provide much of a stepping stone to solving the bigger problem," Bezos said in his letter.

"But I do think we can help. As a company with some high-profile software patents, we're in a credible position to call for meaningful (perhaps even radical) patent reform," he added.

An Amazon representative confirmed Bezos' letter.

In recent months, Amazon has received patents on its 1-Click ordering feature and its affiliates program. The company sued Barnesandnoble.com in October, claiming that it had illegally copied Amazon's 1-Click technology; Amazon has since won a preliminary injunction against its chief rival.

Amazon's patents have raised the ire of Net advocates because the features the patents would protect have been widely adopted by other companies. Many advocates argue that the features are not only obvious, but Amazon's enforcement of patents for them could harm Net commerce.

"I urge Amazon to give up on this patent," wrote Tim O'Reilly in a column on the O'Reilly Web site. O'Reilly, who is president of Net book publisher O'Reilly & Associates, continued: "I am confident that it will eventually be overturned in any case. And in the meantime, Amazon will not only reap a harvest of ill will, they will erode the soil of innovation on the Web.

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"What's more, they are a fierce competitor who has already established a dominant market position. They can win without resorting to cheap tricks."

Despite the criticism from Net advocates such as O'Reilly, Amazon can't simply give up its patents, said Rich Gray, an attorney with Outside General Counsel of Silicon Valley. Doing so would open up the company to lawsuits from shareholders--and from other companies that might step in and take over Amazon's patents, he said.

Gray applauded Bezos' call for patent reform, calling it a "legitimate and appropriate response to the criticism they've been getting."

"Being a lawyer in Silicon Valley, this is one of the things I've been on my horse about," Gray said. "This is a whole category of patents that's going to create a lot of problems for a lot of people down the road."

In his letter, Bezos called for software and business-method patents to be limited from the current 17 years to three to five years. He also called for the limitation to be retroactive so that current patents would be enforceable for only three to five years.

In addition to the time limit on patents, Bezos proposed a public comment period before a patent is issued to allow Net users the chance to show previous examples of the potential patent.

"If done right, we'll end up with a patent system that produces fewer patents, fewer bad patents and even the good patents won't last longer than is necessary to give the innovator a reasonable return," Bezos wrote.

Bezos said in his letter he had been influenced by "several hundred" letters sent to Amazon about the issue and by O'Reilly's column.

 

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