After weeks of stinging criticism and exposure to an impassioned online debate, Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has called for a fundamental reform of the US patent system and pledged to volunteer his own time to achieve it. Notably, however, Bezos did not budge on cries for Amazon to relinquish its patents on 1-Click ordering and affliliate marketing -- patents that many observers feel should never have been granted, and if granted, will work against innovation on the Web. "I don't want to let Jeff entirely off the hook," computer book publisher Tim O'Reilly said in a response to Bezos. O'Reilly has turned a portion of his company's website, www.oreilly.com, into a debate forum on the subject of Amazon's patents. But, O'Reilly said in his recently posted response, "If Time magazine's Man of the Year says that the patent system has gotten out of hand, that may well have more impact on the powers that be than if 10,000 relatively anonymous programmers do so. So I'm really excited to participate with Jeff in his call for a closer look at how we can update the patent system for the Internet Age." Bezos's call for reform appears an Open Letter of his own, which he posted yesterday. His suggestions: • Patent laws should recognize that business method and software patents are fundamentally different from other kinds of patents. • Such patents should have a much shorter lifespan than the current 17 years -- he proposes three to five years. • The new patent lifespan should be retroactive. • A short but mandatory comment period be required before a patent number is issued. Bezos also offered to help fund a prior-art database, which would help inventors and the patent office keep better track of what's already been invented and by whom. But it's important, O'Reilly says, that the database be filled with useful examples. Otherwise, he warns, "the patent examiners will write it off as bogus". Bezos, who, justly or not, is consistently lionized in the press as the king of online commerce, has built enough clout to be seriously listened to in Washington; and, in fact, he says he has "already contacted the offices of several members of Congress from the committees with primary responsibility for patents to ask if they would be willing to meet with me on the issue," and that he's invited O'Reilly to come along. He added that he and O'Reilly will recruit software industry leaders and others to help. "Taking this to Washington is not going to be an easy road," O'Reilly told Wide Open News. O'Reilly's response to Bezos offers support for rethinking patent law, but he gets in some digs: "Others who know about the patent system may have even better ideas." The most interesting angle to the story may not be Bezos's call to change the law, but the way it all came about. Last December, open source leader and computer programmer Richard Stallman called for an Amazon boycott because of the 1-Click patent, which covers the process of clicking on a single button to instantly place an online order, rather than stocking items in an electronic shopping cart. More recently, Amazon won a patent for the idea of allowing people set up mini-bookstores on their own sites that connect directly with Amazon, and taking a small revenue slice of any book ordered through their store. Bezos said he received several hundred emails on the subject, as well as three long conversations, which "have been incredibly helpful to me as I've tried to clarify in my mind what is the right thing to do." The fact that O'Reilly made public the gist of his conversations with Bezos and set up a discussion forum at Oreilly.com on the subject may have clarified Bezos's mind even further. O'Reilly told Wide Open News he didn't set out to prompt Amazon to reverse its decision in pursuing patents. "I understand the restraints Jeff is under. My goal was to raise public consciousness," he says. One thing to note from his experience, Bezos reports, "is that this episode is a fascinating example of the new world, where companies can have conversations with their customers, and customers can have conversations with their companies." Still, Amazon's failure to back down on patent enforcement does not sit well with those who fundamentally believe software should not be patented. In response to the idea that Amazon is merely paying lip service to critics, Amazon spokesman Bill Curry says, "We want to change patent law. But until it changes, we'll play by the rules." ® Wide Open News is a Register Partner. It covers the world of Linux, Open Source and Business. Check it out.
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