I'm not making this up. In France, upscale restaurants trap tiny endangered birds called ortolans, keep them in the dark and force-feed them flour and cognac, then drown them, bake them in their own fat, and serve them hot from the oven. Customers hold the sizzling birds by the beaks, then pop them into their mouths whole, munching happily away on bones, skin, and guts. Since serving protected ortolans in a restaurant is illegal and shameful, diners shroud their heads and plates with large napkins.
But when it comes to major-league, kick-out-the-jams, high-octane shame, nobody does it better than we Yanks. By combining primal, unstoppable greed, a government administration that looks the other way, and a legal system that's utterly out of control, a handful of Internet bigwigs have cornered the market on nasty behavior. And nobody makes napkins big enough to cover these heads.
Among the worst offenders are the lawyers who recently extorted 2 billion bucks from Toshiba because of an exotic bug in a third-party notebook floppy drive that hadn't actually hurt even one of its 5.5 million laptop users—and then piled on Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, NEC, and eMachines (even though eMachines doesn't even make notebooks!).
Ditto a new California class-action suit against Microsoft—one of seven currently pending—that claims Micro soft charged too much for Windows. In California the rules are so liberal that you don't even have to actually purchase a product to sue on the basis of being overcharged. Some more tea, Mr. Hatter?
Companies cave because they're afraid redneck juries will punish big, rich, out-of-state corporations. Toshiba president Taizo Nishimuro says he suspected a hostile Texas jury would nail his company with an $8 billion–plus judgment.
It gets worse.
In December U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman ruled that Barnesandnoble.com's "express lane" button was too similar to Amazon.com's one-click ordering button, and that Amazon would suffer "irreparable harm" as a result. Now at Bn.com you have to click twice (the second time is a "confirmation" page).
Or consider these: LinkShare somehow patented a link. DoubleClick is suing several sites for targeting ads. Yahoo is being sued for a small feature in its shopping basket. And one prominent rascal, Jay Walker, head of Priceline, is suing Microsoft for using reverse auctions in its Expedia travel site.
Walker deserves a special place in this rogues' gallery. His kind of "innovation" involves sitting down with a cabal of patent lawyers to lock up as many Internet basics as possible. He's already snagged 30, and he has 300 more in the works.
OK, having to click twice instead of once may not be such a big deal. And protecting genuine innovation is important. The problem is that one-click shopping is a broad device that every site should have and that by suing, Amazon is stifling progress. Reverse auctions were around long before Walker tried to grab the rights. What's he going to do next? Lock up the Back button, or e-commerce in general? Stuff this broad shouldn't be patentable.
The real disgrace is that the same Clinton administration that pummels Microsoft for supposedly slowing down innovation is gleefully letting these insane patents glide through.
There are lots of threats to progress, such as the current Justice Department vendetta, the push by selfish localities and stores like Wal-Mart to tax the Internet to death, and the foot dragging by utilities that refuse to install high-bandwidth plumbing. But greedy tycoons who want to hijack all the Web's basic building blocks are the worst. They should be ashamed of themselves.