Amazon’s Net Patents

Snowqualmie FallsAmazon.com has obtained a couple of patents on business methods that seem like a simple implementation of a database+cookie scheme. From my cursory reading of the patent, it appears that these are reasonably basic items that someone skilled in the art could come up with rather easily.

My own limited knowlege of the extant software patents would seem to suggest that there are very few that would be considered valid from a novelty or prior art point of view. The legal system being what it is, that view has little or no bearing on the realities of the situation.

The purpose of the patent system was to encourage innovation by granting a monopoly to the inventor to exploit the invention for a limited period of time. There are several reasons that this is not the effect when patents are granted for software.

In the software world, it is reasonably obvious that a tremendous amount of innovation is occuring without the patent system interfering. In addition, the patents that are granted are at least 2 years behind the leading edge of innovation. Since the pace of change is such that entire industries change between the application and awarding of a patent; the chance that a patent will still be an innovation is low and the chance that others will have independantly arrived at the same end is high.

Many of the arguments that have been put forward in defense of software patents allude to the amount of time spent on the idea Unfortunately, the time to generate the idea and the time required for the implementation of the idea are entertwined. Implementations are already protected by copyright, so there is no need for a patent there.

Patents prevent some reverse engineering efforts to ensure compatibility. Since a patent covers a process, even if you independently create every piece of that process in a clean room, you can still be infringing on a patent. This is an important consideration when there is a possibility for submarine patents.

Finally, the process of patents and patent defenses distract from the process of innovating. The effort required to get a patent puts it out of the reach of lone hackers, and puts a tremendous drag on small companies.

But in today’s climate, there are software patents, and they appear to be legally valid. In this sort of climate, Amazon is acting as they have to. They are protecting core business methods from being attacked by a patent poacher. This is a necessary step for one other legal reason.

Amazon.com has lots of minority shareholders, and their stock has been falling. In today’s legal climate, there’s a significant possibly that they will have to defend against minority shareholder lawsuits.

Not defending their patents is probably a good way to lose these lawsuits. If the patents aren’t defended, especially against direct competitors, it can be held as an example of management not excercising due diligence.

My conclusion is that there are too many lawyers (Hi Sis!) promoting a climate of litigation that prevents companies and individuals from doing what is right.

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