The boring world of software patents has suddenly become a hot topic thanks to Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com. It all started a while ago, when Amazon came up with two useful online solutions. One was a shopping shortcut that allowed customers to make a purchase with one click of the mouse; the second was a simple affiliates programme that allowed other websites to get a commission when people bought a book from Amazon via their site.
So far it's all very innocent, simply developing new applications and improving the customer's experience of online shopping. Since both solutions were fairly handy, many other shopping sites adopted both, by incorporating similar software into their e-commerce systems. Meanwhile, Bezos, richer by a few billion and too busy counting his cash to come up with any new ideas, decided he would patent the solutions. The industry watched in disbelief when he actually was awarded a US patent for his one-click shopping. Armed with this piece of paper, he then moved on to take a major competitor, Barnes and Noble, to court to stop it using similar solutions on its bookshop website. Amazon got an injunction that forced Barnes and Noble to add another step to its buying process.
Of course, the customer becomes the real loser as the shopping becomes more difficult. But the court clearly was not interested in customers' wellbeing or the future of thisInternet development.
This is all a sign that Amazon is approaching middle age, and behaving like an Old Economy company. It has become backward-looking, defensive and focused on protecting backs, instead of conquering new areas of e-commerce. This is also a worrying reminder that a big company isn't necessarily a better one. Amazon appears to have reached the size where the only thing it can do is use its loot to employ expensive laywers to protect its back. In the good old days Bezos would have employed a few more clever software developers to come up with ideas for enhancing the customer experience. They would then take the company further in an inspiring way - just what we would have expected from an early pioneer like Amazon.
But it's not just Amazon. Even smaller, supposedly nimbler and more creative start-ups are suffering from patents mania. There is a whole set of absurd patents coming our way from small companies based in sunny California. Priceline.com, a start-up from Cupertino, is the proud owner of a patent for a "name your price" way of auctioning items online and is currently suing Expedia over its use of a similar solution. Although I am all for making trouble for Microsoft, the idea of suing someone over the use of a process that's as old as ancient Egypt is tenuous and logically indefensible.
Another small company, Multi-tech Systems, has been awarded the patent for "transmission of data over communication lines" and is nowchallenging three leading PC manufacturers - Compaq, Dell and Gateway - over their use of this concept. Bizzarre? It gets worse. A tiny start-up from San Francisco, Sightsound.com, is suing CDNow over a patent for selling audio online. But, it gets still worse. If you think only the commercial sharks were playing the absurd patent game, you are wrong. Two boffins from MIT are suing the Ask Jeeves search engine for the use of natural language query processing.
In my academic day, you felt proud if somebody actually bothered to put your intellectual inventions to use. You also didn't have the money to sue anybody. Today, even the boffins employ a brigade of "usage watchers" and have a team of laywers on hand to sue anybody who comes close to using their ideas.
One must wonder what would have happened to the Internet industry if Tim Berners-Lee had beenAmerican. If hypertext had been patented back in 1993, he still wouldn't be a rich man because there would be no Internet industry to speak of. It would have never happened. The industry was created by sharing ideas, and by driving innovation through building on each other's solutions, freely available to all.
Americans have led the software revolution with their innovative solutions which have produced world-class websites and great user experiences. From Hotmail to collaborative filtering, most of the good stuff has come from the land of surf and silicon. But somehow, in parallel, this same society has managed to produce an even bigger number of greedy lawyers. You can't walk down many Silicon Valley streets without bumping into a dozen of these sharp-suited wasters. These people, in pursuit of easy bucks, are choking to death-by-patent the entire creative development of the Internet.
This may well lead to the end of the growth era and online innovation as we know it. The real tragedy is that the Americans can't even see it happening and their government is not able to stop the litigation fever.
There is only one thing we can do here: urge our government to do take the same stance as it has on genetic research.We need to ensure that the inventions critical to the wellbeing of the Internet must be exempted from the absurd attempts at patenting them - since they should belong to the whole user community for free sharing and ongoing development.
We have to protect the Americans from their own greed and short-termism. We also should protect our own European Internet development from the United States' lack of imagination. If there ever was a time for the Government to act concerning the online legal structure, now is the time. Otherwise there will simply be no development at all.