Tim & Jeff's excellent patent show

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, after a discussion with publisher Tim O'Reilly, calls for patent reform -- while clinging to those his company has.

Published March 10, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

As if to prove he really is deserving of being named Time's person of the year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos listened to the Net community's outrage over e-commerce patents his company has recently won -- and changed his tune, kind of. On Thursday, Bezos posted a letter to the Amazon site denouncing "the patent system" and promising to lobby Congress for reforms that would lead to "fewer patents, of higher average quality, with shorter lifetimes." However, he did specify that he has no intention of giving up the e-commerce patents in question, that protect his company's "1-click" ordering system and its affiliates program.

Is Bezos an interested listener or just a savvy politician schooled in redirecting the debate? You be the judge: According to the letter, Bezos "came to realize" how important the patent issue is after three conversations with Tim O'Reilly, CEO of computer-book publisher O'Reilly & Associates, who criticized Amazon's patent stance in an open letter posted to the O'Reilly site last week. O'Reilly had derided Amazon's one-click patent, saying that the patent "is one more example of an 'intellectual property' milieu gone mad" and arguing that the mechanism for easy-ordering was neither novel nor obvious. He also railed against the affiliate program patent, which encourages its partner sites to sell Amazon products for a small commission. O'Reilly had argued that Bezos should "avoid any attempts to limit the further development of Internet commerce on the basis of patents." Bezos says he read about 400 of the 10,000 responses to O'Reilly's argument.

But despite the back and forth -- with Bezos trying to convince O'Reilly that the one-click ordering system was an original idea worthy of patenting -- Bezos' letter doesn't reveal much of a retreat. Bezos didn't agree to give up Amazon's patent for one-click ordering, or for its associate program, nor did he agree to stop seeking patents.

Instead, Bezos points the finger at the Patent and Trademark Office, saying that its system is outdated and fails to recognize the accelerated speed with which innovation happens in technology. He outlined his vision of how the law governing software and business-method patents should be changed: The lifespan of such patents should be shortened from the 17 years to between three and five; the shortened lifespan should apply to patents already issued, and the Patent Office should establish a short ("one month?" Bezos suggests) public comment period that would give the Internet community the opportunity to provide earlier examples of the innovation seeking protection. "The current rules governing business method and software patents could end up harming us all," he writes.

O'Reilly may agree, but in his latest response he doesn't sound convinced that the system is the only one that needs a slap on the wrist. O'Reilly wasn't available for comment, but in a section of the O'Reilly site that's beginning to look like the "Tim & Jeff" show, he commended Bezos for "listening to his customers" but then put him on the spot: "One way to tell that [how serious Bezos is] for sure is by the amount of follow-up we see over the next few months." In other words, the world is watching Jeff -- and we sure wouldn't want you to tarnish your person of the year crown.

By Damien Cave

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

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