This is not an open letter to Jeff Bezos. If an honest-to-god Net-publishing pioneer like Tim O'Reilly has no traction in convincing the head of

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Patently absurd

This is not an open letter to Jeff Bezos. If an honest-to-god Net-publishing pioneer like Tim O'Reilly has no traction in convincing the head of Amazon that his latest patent steps over the line of reasonable and good Net citizenship, god knows he won't listen to a writer (a creature far, far lower on the food chain).

O'Reilly, head of the publishing house of the same name, views with the proverbial alarm Amazon's latest victory in a series of stinky-bad decisions from the US Patent Office, which gives them legal dibs on the idea and process of associate links. An associate link is one that, when clicked by a surfer, takes them from Site X to a specific item for sale on Site Y. If the surfer makes the purchase, Site X gets a cut from Site Y for the referral.

The Net has embraced the associate concept, and sites large and small have incorporated it into their business models. Now Amazon, fresh from last September's award of a patent on one-click shopping (where a Web site, if it recognizes a shopper, can tally up an order with . . . oh, you get the idea), intends to be everyone's one-and-only Site Y. Bezos tells O'Reilly that gee, if he doesn't enforce this patent all those other Big Bad Companies will beat him up and take his lunch money. (Bezos characterizes the patent as being on not the shopping concept per se but on the pointing-and-saying-I-want-it-instant-gratification concept. Had I known that, I would slapped a patent on the closest 3-year-old in FAO Schwartz. But I digress.)

O'Reilly and a lot of other people look at this, quite rightly, as pissing in the Internet well. How did Amazon get such a broad patent? Let's just say it's been a long time since Einstein worked in a patent office; these are the same people that awarded some bubba from Virginia a patent on getting a cat to chase a laser-pointer dot around—he called it a method for exercising cats, and it's patent #5,443,036. I wish I were kidding. Amazon's latest is patent #6,029,141. I wish I were kidding about that, too.

It's one thing to have a patent; it's quite another to enforce it. O'Reilly, in a personal letter to Bezos, asked the Amazon chief to refrain from enforcing his shiny new patent. However, the un-bookstore has a history with these things; in December, several months after the one-click patent (#5,960,411) came through, Amazon spanked brick-and-click book vendor Barnes & Noble in court for that company's use of a similar laborsaving device.

Years ago Jeff Bezos claimed to have a vision about selling consumer goods on the Net. More importantly, he claimed to have a vision about the Net itself—how it could replace and better the shopping process simply by virtue of being accessible and democratic and full of options. A lot of Net settlers in those Wild West days—myself included—cheered him on. And when Barnes & Noble came online (an event widely forecast as Amazon's doom) our hometown hero kicked the Goliath's hard-to-spell.com butt, and we cheered, and verily we did take that victory as a sign that the Net was a force for good and for progress.

These chilling patents are neither. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of anything Amazon has done lately that is either good or progressive. Whether they're bowing to Scientology censorship demands, beating up would-be competitors with lawsuits rather than better business practices, or decimating their own ranks with wholesale firings (is there anyone left in human resources over there, by the way? My sources tell me that HR has been gutted yet again, this time including the VP of HR, the director of HR/customer services, and the director of HR/compensation and benefits—this after 40-some folk were laid off back in January)—where was I?—with all these actions to its "credit," Amazon has proven that it is no friend to readers, no friend to the community of booksellers, no friend even to its employees.

And no friend, god knows, to the Net.

There's an old saying a close friend of mine used to quote regularly: The greatest genius in the history of the world died in a gutter. On the Web, it's a truism that the greatest genius in its history—Tim Berners-Lee, y'all—isn't making anywhere near the loot he deserves for co-inventing HTTP and HTML and so forth. Even Tim O'Reilly, he of the thoughtful letter and the lack of traction, is doing merely well.

No, it takes a blood-sucking Jeff Bezos to really clean up and then to swipe at his erstwhile supporters with a mess of undeserved and harmful patents. He made his fortune on the Net, but he cares no more about its well-being and development than he cares about the products he sells. We have met the enemy, and truly we mistook him for one of us.

 
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