Amazon patents gender stereotyping

Girls like dolls, and their presents should be wrapped in pink paper. Whether it is obvious or not, Amazon now holds the patent on the idea
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

Amazon.com has been granted a US patent on "Methods and systems of assisting users in purchasing items", including the use of gift-buying habits to determine the age, gender and birth-date of gift recipients, according to a US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) filing on Tuesday.

The patent concerns inferring information about gift recipients and using that information to suggest appropriate items and services, such as birthday or Valentine's Day reminders and age- and gender-appropriate gifts. "For example, if the purchased toy is a dress for a doll, it may be inferred that the recipient is a girl," the patent states.

"The gender information may be used in determining which gift wrapping colors and patterns should be suggested when the item is being purchased as a gift. For example, if it is inferred that the recipient is a girl, pink or pastel colored gift wrapping may be suggested first."

Web sites using such techniques may now be compelled to pay Amazon a licence fee, at least in the US. Patents on pure software and business processes (or the idea of writing software that supposes girls may like dolls) are currently not enforceable in Europe, but a draft directive on the "patentability of computer-implemented inventions" now making its way through the European Parliament could remove most restrictions, the directive's opponents claim. European software patents could seriously damage open-source development, say some industry observers, and their passage so far has not been without controversy.

United States Patent number 6,865,546 was issued to an Amazon.com researcher on Tuesday. Much of the patent's descriptions relate to how a Web site can determine the age and birth date of birthday gift recipients. For example, if a toy appropriate for a two-year-old is purchased one year, and a toy appropriate for a three-year-old is purchased a year later, the site can guess that this is a gift for a three-year-old. The site can use this information to automatically provide services such as birthday reminders, the filing says.

Under conventional systems, "in order to receive birthday reminders, the customer has to actively provide the date of the birthday to the merchant," the filing says. "Many customers will not take the time to provide such birth dates, and so are deprived of receiving reminders."

Amazon's patent grants it a monopoly on many data-mining techniques applied to identifying when a purchase is a gift, and what sort of gift it is. "If the item being ordered is perfume, and the date is one week before Valentine's Day, it may be inferred that the perfume is being purchased as a gift," the filing states. If a user chooses to send a message with a gift, the system can parse the message for "key words, such as birthday or anniversary" and infer the type of event associated with the gift, the patent states.

Last month the USPTO published Amazon's application for a patent on "Server architecture and methods for persistently storing and serving event data", which hich describes the "personal search history" feature of Amazon's A9 search service. Amazon has also applied for a European patent on this feature.

Amazon's most notorious business-process patent is on "one-click" shopping, which sparked a boycott of Amazon.com and prompted so many letters of complaint that chief executive Jeff Bezos was prompted to write an open letter calling for patent reform — but not before launching an unsuccessful action against barnesandnoble.com.

Amazon has itself been sued over "shopping cart" patents issued in 1998.

Earlier this month, Symantec was granted a US patent for the threat-detection technology built into its software products.

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