A Kinder, Gentler Jeff Bezos?

Last week, in an open letter posted on his company’s Web site, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos responded to allegations that the e-tail giant’s use of patents is unfair and stifling to competition.

The saga began in earnest last December when Richard Stallman, an early developer of the Linux operating system, called for a boycott of Amazon in an article posted on the Linux Today Web site.

Stallman’s call-to-action was a response to Amazon’s attempt to prevent Barnesandnoble.com from duplicating technology that allows repeat shoppers to purchase items without having to re-enter personal information each time.

Amazon dubbed the shopping tool “1-Click” and received a patent in September. The company filed a complaint against Barnesandnoble.com the following month, claiming that it paid a huge price to develop the technology and therefore was under no obligation to share it with its rivals or anyone else.

Do Patents Restrict?

Still, Stallman and others objected to Amazon’s patent on the grounds that “it directly affects the freedom of e-commerce.” They also claimed that such patents are for “obvious technology” and that an overworked and undermanned U.S. Patent Office has neither the time nor expertise to recognize that distinction.

The protests intensified last month after Amazon announced that it had also obtained a patent for its affiliate program, which lets e-tailers establish sites within Amazon’s Web site.

Bezos Softens Position

Now it appears that Bezos — who said he received about 400 e-mails regarding Amazon’s patent practices — seems to be softening his position.

In the open letter, Bezos suggested that software and business-method patents last three to five years — substantially less than the 17-year reach they now have. Additionally, Bezos proposed that outsiders be allowed to comment on software patents before they are issued. He also offered to fund a software repository that patent examiners could use to determine if an idea is truly unique.

Bezos claimed that his change of heart on patent issues had nothing to do with the boycott. Instead, he said, “extremely thoughtful” postings by O’Reilly & Associates Chief Executive Tim O’Reilly were responsible for his revised position.

Regardless, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has reportedly indicated that the agency will not support changes in patent law.

Reality or PR Ploy?

It is clear to me that nobody is going to change their mind as a result of Bezos’ letter. If you are pro-Amazon, then this effort will confirm what you already felt about the company. Likewise, if you are opposed to Bezos and Company, then you will dismiss the letter as meaningless hype and smoke.

In my opinion, the attempt is a meaningful step. Bezos has at least made an effort to meet his critics halfway, so let’s stay tuned to see if they reciprocate.

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