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Old ally slams Amazon on patent filings

The cyber giant finds itself in the centre of a growing storm as companies rip its proprietary patent claims

Online retailer Amazon.com came under increasing pressure Tuesday to back off from patent claims on "obvious" business ideas.

This time the criticism came from an old ally, Timothy O'Reilly, president and CEO of computer book publisher O'Reilly & Associates.

In an open letter to Amazon.com, O'Reilly criticised the company for patenting ideas that he said were as obvious as "1-click ordering" and an "affiliate program".

"Once the Web becomes fenced in by competing patents and other attempts to make this glorious open playing field into a proprietary wasteland, the springs of further innovation will dry up," O'Reilly wrote. "In short, I think you are pissing in the well."

On Monday, the outspoken book chief published the column and added a petition to Amazon.com requesting it to clarify its intentions. At the same time, O'Reilly asked customers to sign their John Hancocks to the petition. Less than 24 hours later, almost 3,000 people had added their names and comments to the piece.

The outcry originates from two patents Amazon received in the last six months. On 28 September the company received the patent for "1-click ordering", an idea many cyberfirms have used for some time, O'Reilly said Tuesday in an interview. The process is rather simple: A cookie identifies users and allows them to click once, triggering an instruction that basically says, "Put the book on my tab." The merchandise then gets sent and Amazon bills the customer.

O'Reilly and others in the industry believed the patent to be essentially unenforceable. Yet, in December, Amazon convinced a Seattle judge to grant a preliminary injunction against the online giant's primary competitor in the book industry, Barnesandnoble.com.

On 22 February Amazon also received the patent for "affiliate programs" on the Web, whereby other Web sites can get profits for referring customers to Amazon. That is yet another obvious idea, said Timothy Ney, managing officer for the Free Software Foundation. "With the Amazon patents, it doesn't seem that getting a patent on a process is fair or unique," he said.

O'Reilly said he largely admires what Amazon has accomplished. Still, he added, "The company is trying to decide whether they want to be a good citizen or a bad one. Right now, they are exhibiting the same predatory behaviour as Microsoft. They're being a bad citizen, and the most offensive thing is that they did not actually invent this stuff (that they are patenting)."

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment

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