Apple’s “1-click” deal leaves a sour taste

Since when does a computer maker need to license technology from a retailer like Amazon?

Topics: Apple, Amazon.com,

If the good folks at Apple Computer are sharp enough to create operating systems and write code that runs servers or lets filmmaking neophytes create flawless digital movies, surely they could hack creating a program that remembers the shipping addresses and credit card numbers of returning customers — in a snap. But on Monday Apple became the first company to license Amazon.com’s “1-click” patent — turning to the Net’s most celebrated retailer to augment its online ordering system.

Thanks to the “innovative” technology behind Amazon’s much-debated patent, “the easiest computer to use is now the easiest computer to buy,” enthuses the Apple Web site. But Apple, in its quest for ease, essentially may be making things that much more difficult for Net retailers.

By accepting the “1-click” patent as valid, Apple has for all practical purposes closed the debate about the patent’s very legitimacy. People like open-source publisher Tim O’Reilly can continue to crow (as they did this spring) about the unworthiness of the patent, just as they can continue to call for reforms at the U.S. Patent Office, which granted it. But all the noise they can make probably will do little to change the fate of Barnesandnoble.com, which was forced to disable its own easy-ordering system after Amazon.com sued the rival online bookseller, or other retailers who could presumably write a similar program of their own.

Monday’s deal gives credence where controversy used to reign, says Jamie Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology. “One of the problems you’ve got is that if someone has a patent that’s controversial, they can legitimize it through licensing agreements,” Love says of the Apple-Amazon deal. “It lets you go around and convince other companies to pay up. Busting patents is hard enough, but once deals are made it’s even harder.”

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What’s more, those who decide that they have no choice but to follow in Apple’s path might not find the licensing negotiations all that easy, if only because Apple and Amazon have done their deal in the dark. Sure, the Apple press release describes the arrangement as a “cross-licensing” agreement, but it doesn’t say what Apple traded for the “1-click” license. No financial details are available and spokespeople for neither Apple nor Amazon would elaborate on the deal. So, the next company that wants to use “1-click” ordering on its site might have to pay significantly more — or less — than Apple to use the patent, without any idea of how its fees compare.

There is, of course, no reason to believe that Amazon would resort to unfair business practices, but without transparency the possibility is always there. That’s why the patent system needs to be fixed; indeed, that’s why the debate over the validity of Internet patents in general needs to continue.

In March, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos seemed to agree. In response to O’Reilly’s concerns, he even penned a letter that called for “fewer patents, of higher average quality, with shorter lifetimes.” But now, one has to wonder. Maybe, like Apple, he’s chosen ease over opposition.

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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