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Bezos calls for patent reform

Stung by harsh criticism over his company's recent patents, Amazon.com's chief executive says the system should reward software innovation

Amazon.com's chief executive, Jeff Bezos, under fire for his company's patent policies, urged on Thursday that the United States overhaul the patent process to reflect the different nature of software innovation. Amazon has been harshly criticised for weeks over a few controversial patents. The company is currently engaged in a lawsuit against barnesandnoble.com over its one-click patent, which allows consumers to store data at Amazon's site and purchase items by clicking a button. The company was recently awarded a separate patent covering its affiliate marketing program, which is similar to systems used by hundreds of other Internet companies.

The one-click patent has drawn fire from the Internet community and has even sparked a boycott of the site. In an open letter posted on Amazon's site, Bezos said that he has received hundreds of letters about the issue.

Many in the Internet community have called on Amazon to drop its patents, saying they violate the free and open nature of the Internet, a move Bezos rejected in the letter. "Despite the call from many thoughtful folks for us to give up our patents unilaterally, I don't believe it would be right for us to do so," he wrote. But he acknowledged that the current situation is not optimal. "I now believe it's possible that the current rules governing business method and software patents could end up harming all of us -- including Amazon.com and its many shareholders, the folks to whom I have a strong responsibility, not only ethical, but legal and fiduciary as well," he wrote.

Bezos' proposal would create a shorter life for business method and software patents -- three to five years, as opposed to the 17-year rule in place now. He said that software and business methods, unlike drugs, for example, do not require extensive clinical tests or capital expenditures to develop. "Especially in the age of the Internet, a good software innovation can catch a lot of wind in three or five years," he wrote.

He also proposed that members of the public be given a chance to comment on proposed patents before they are issued. Bezos said he had contacted members of Congress regarding his plan and asked to meet with them regarding the issue. He said he had also invited industry publisher Tim O'Reilly, who has been a highly vocal critic of Amazon's patents. O'Reilly, in a posting on his Web site, called Bezos' proposal "a great outcome" to the situation.

"I do agree that the reforms that Jeff has suggested would be a great first step towards rethinking the system," O'Reilly wrote. He said that while the move should not take the light away from Amazon, "any solution that simply involves Amazon and does not spark larger reforms will be of little importance". He also said that his discussions with Bezos had led him to somewhat rethink his views on the controversial Amazon patents. "In talking with Jeff about the details of his patents and why he thought they were original, I was struck by how different his sense of what he had 'invented' was from the sense I got by reading the patents themselves -- and from commentary I'd read on the Net (including my own :-)," he wrote.

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