In naming Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos as its millennial Man -- er, Person -- of the Year, Time magazine spilled thousands of words describing the company's rise from humble beginnings, its role as flagship of the e-commerce armada and the "Six Core Values" Bezos instills in his crew: "Customer Obsession, Ownership, Bias for Action, Frugality, High Hiring Bar and Innovation."
There's one story, though, that Time missed: If you want to buy stuff anywhere on the Web besides Amazon, Jeff Bezos insists that you must click at least twice! And that insistence, as manifested in a patent-infringement lawsuit, is now sparking a grass-roots boycott of the company by free-software devotees.
Amazon has a patent on its "1-Click" ordering scheme -- a patent that was recently upheld in a federal court, which issued a preliminary order that Amazon rival (and Salon.com bookselling partner) Barnesandnoble.com shut down its own 1-Click ordering service.
That patent, like many of those that have recently been granted for e-commerce methods, evokes groans from many corners of the Internet industry. Patents are only supposed to be granted for "non-obvious" inventions. Amazon's particular implementation of the feature may have taken tons of software-development time and effort. But the company wants to lock down ownership of the very concept of 1-Click ordering -- and lock out other merchants from using the arguably obvious-as-hell scheme.
That has Richard Stallman, the godfather of the free-software movement, calling for a boycott of Amazon. "The patent gives Amazon the power over anyone who runs a Web site ... to control all use of this technique," Stallman writes. "Please do not buy anything from Amazon until they promise to stop using this patent to threaten or restrict other Web sites."
One reason the Web has grown so fast is that good ideas get copied so quickly. When one portal adds a new service, all the others tack it on to their home pages. When Amazon's e-commerce ascendance was challenged by the rise of eBay's auctions, Amazon added its own auction service.
The Web itself is built on simple, "obvious" ideas -- like links and platform-independent page designs that can be viewed on all manner of computers. If the people who created the Web had patented such concepts, they might be rich; then again, the Web would never have evolved into the universal commons it is today. Stallman argues, persuasively, that by granting patents to simple e-commerce processes, the U.S. Patent Office is making bad calls that will stunt the growth of Internet business.
Stallman is both a visionary and a crank, and something tells me that Jeff Bezos is not losing sleep over his manifesto. But the same network magic that leverages the information on Amazon's hugely successful and convenient Web sites also has the capacity to turn quiet arguments into raging wildfires of protest. Stallman even asks authors who agree with his boycott call to republish his manifesto in the author's note space that Amazon kindly gives writers.
The courts may keep handing Bezos victories in the patent wars. But every win for Amazon is a loss for the Web as a whole.
Amazon was once a company that embraced the happy calculus of the "network effect" -- the ability the Internet has to multiply the value of everyone's contribution to it, whether you are a book buyer writing a review on Amazon's sites, a bookselling partner in Amazon's co-op program or an investor in the company's stock. The 1-Click patent suits suggest that the company is forsaking this understanding for a more conventional, bare-knuckles corporate strategy.
But the more control Amazon tries to seize, the more likely it is that Bezos will face a ground swell of popular resistance from the Net's free-spirited quarters. That will put his customer-comes-first philosophy to its toughest test yet.