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Please do not buy from Amazon
Amazon has obtained a US patent (5,960,411) on an important and
obvious idea for E-commerce: the idea that your command in a web
browser to buy a certain item can carry along information about
your identity. (This works by sending back a "cookie", a kind of ID
code that your browser received previously from the same server.)
Amazon has sued to block the use of this simple idea, showing that
they truly intend to monopolize it. This is an attack against the
World Wide Web and against E-commerce in general.
The idea in question is that a company can give you something
which you can subsequently show them to identify yourself for
credit. This is nothing new: a physical credit card does the same
job, after all. But the US Patent Office issues patents on obvious
and well-known ideas every day. Sometimes the result is a
Today Amazon is suing one large company. If this were just a
dispute between two companies, it would not be an important public
issue. But the patent gives Amazon the power over anyone who runs a
web site in the US (and any other countries that give them similar
patents)--power to control all use of this technique. Although only
one company is being sued today, the issue affects the whole
Amazon is not alone at fault in what is happening. The US Patent
Office is to blame for having very low standards, and US courts are
to blame for endorsing them. And US patent law is to blame for
authorizing patents on computational techniques and patterns of
communication--a policy that is harmful in general. (See
lpf.ai.mit.edu for more information about this issue.)
Foolish government policies gave Amazon the opportunity--but an
opportunity is not an excuse. Amazon made the choice to obtain this
patent, and the choice to use it in court for aggression. The
ultimate moral responsibility for Amazon's actions lies with
We can hope that the court will find this patent is legally
invalid, Whether they do so will depend on detailed facts and
obscure technicalities. The patent uses piles of semirelevent
detail to make this "invention" look like something subtle.
But we do not have to wait passively for the court to decide the
freedom of E-commerce. There is something we can do right now: we
can refuse to do business with Amazon. Please do not buy anything
from Amazon until they promise to stop using this patent to
threaten or restrict other web sites.
If you are the author of a book sold by Amazon, you can provide
powerful help to this campaign by putting this text into the
"author comment" about your book, on Amazon's web site. Please send
mail to firstname.lastname@example.org when you
do this, and please tell us what happens afterward.
President, Free Software Foundation
Copyright 1999 Richard Stallman Verbatim copying and
redistribution of this entire article is permitted provided this
notice is preserved.
Reply to Jason Fletcher (December 19, 1999)
Jason Fletcher wrote ('A Dissenting Opinion', see below in
I do not agree with RMS on this issue. First, I
think he has misinterpreted the issue. Amazon did not patent
cookies. Amazon did not patent the idea of cookies. They patented
the idea of One-Click shopping.
That is essentially correct: Amazon did not patent cookies. The
patent covers the technique needed to support one-click shopping
(which is normally implemented using cookies).
It is precisely for trying to monopolize the feature of
one-click shopping that I condemn Amazon, and ask you not to do buy
From what I can tell, their claim rests on the
strength of two procedural matters, NOT the underlying technology:
(1) the reduction of overhead that might drive a customer away, and
(2) the reduction of transmissions of sensitive information and
thus providing smaller opportunity for information hijacking in
These are the reasons why one-click shopping is a useful feature.
They may be the reasons why Amazon wants a monopoly on the feature;
they are definitely the reasons why I condemn Amazon for trying to
grab that monopoly.
If the feature of one-click shopping were of no particular
benefit, the issue would not be worth paying much attention to.
I chose not to name Barnes and Noble in my announcement because
the identity of the current defendant is a side issue, and people
should not get sidetracked by it. I have no particular sympathy for
Barnes and Noble, and if they were sued for some other reason, I
would be unlikely to take their side. The important thing about
this patent is that it takes a bite out of your freedom and
mine--not just that of Barnes and Noble.
I hope that we are wise enough to value our freedom, and stand
up for it, undistracted by the fact that the first victim is a
large company with no particular claim to our esteem.
Postscript added by Richard Stallman, December 21,
Amazon's response to people who write about the patent contains
a subtle misdirection which is worth analyzing:
The patent system is designed to encourage
innovation, and we spent thousands of hours developing our
1-ClickÂ® shopping feature.
If they did spend thousands of hours, they surely did not spend it
thinking of the general technique that the patent covers. So if
they are telling the truth, what did they spend those hours doing?
Perhaps they spent some of the time writing the patent
application. That task was surely harder than thinking of the
technique. Or perhaps they are talking about the time it took
designing, writing, testing, and perfecting the scripts and the web
pages to handle one-click shopping. That was surely a substantial
job. Looking carefully at their words, it seems the "thousands of
hours developing" could include either of these two jobs.
But the issue here is not about the details in their particular
scripts (which they do not release to us) and web pages (which are
copyrighted anyway). The issue here is the general idea, and
whether Amazon should have a monopoly on that idea.
Are you, or I, free to spend the necessary hours writing our own
scripts, our own web pages, to provide one-click shopping? Even if
we are selling something other than books, are we free to do this?
That is the question. Amazon seeks to deny us that freedom, with
the eager help of a misguided (or worse) US government.
When Amazon sends out cleverly misleading statements like the
one quoted above, it demonstrates something important: they do care
what the public thinks of their actions. They must care--they are a
retailer. Public disgust can affect their profits.
People have pointed out that the problem of software patents is
much bigger than Amazon, that other companies might have acted just
the same, and that boycotting Amazon won't directly change patent
law. Of course, these are all true. But that is no argument against
If we mount the boycott strongly and lastingly, Amazon may
eventually make a concession to end it. And even if they do not,
the next company which has an outrageous software patent and
considers suing someone will realize there can be a price to pay.
They may have second thoughts.
The boycott can also indirectly help change patent law--by
calling attention to the issue and spreading demand for change. And
it is so easy to participate that there is no need to be deterred
on that account. If you agree about the issue, why NOT boycott
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