Bezos: Patents Were Self-Defense
by (c) 2000

6:30 p.m. 3.Mar.2000 PST CEO Jeff Bezos says his company is patenting what critics charge are universal Web technologies as a matter of self-defense.

That was one of the key points of a phone conversation Bezos conducted with technology book publisher Tim O'Reilly earlier this week. O'Reilly quoted Bezos in the written report of the conversation that Reilly posted late Friday afternoon. He said his quotes of Bezos' words were paraphrased, not direct. .

"Amazon started patenting because they realized that they would be under attack by players who might well one day be able to put them out of business," O'Reilly says Bezos told him.

"Jeff tried to reframe the problem from Amazon's point of view, and the analogy he used was arresting: 'We don't want to be another Netscape,'" O'Reilly wrote.

Bezos and Amazon officials did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment late Friday. got a patent late last month on a technique commonly used by competing Web commerce sites. And then it received a lot of criticism.

In protest, Web publishing luminaries have campaigned to convince Amazon of the error of its patenting ways, saying they stymie innovation on the Web.

In an open letter to, O'Reilly wrote that patents on common and obvious Web techniques threaten open standards that should be freely available to all Web sites.

O'Reilly is president and CEO of popular computer book publisher O'Reilly & Associates. The company sells its book titles, like many other publishers, at Despite his business association with the online book giant, O'Reilly felt his company's commitment to the openness of Web technologies demanded that he take a stand.

Soliciting signatures for his letter from supporters on the Web, O'Reilly's letter had been "signed" online by more than 10,000 Web visitors by Friday afternoon.

Amazon received the patent, the second of two controversial Web patents it has been granted, last week. The so-called "Internet-based customer referral system" allows "associate" Web sites to market products for a second merchant Web site in return for a commission.

Bezos promised O'Reilly that would only pursue major competitors for infringement of the patent, O'Reilly said. "There are lots of people using 1-click purchasing on their sites whom we aren't suing," O'Reilly quoted Bezos as saying.

His comments reflect the business practice of gaining patents as a strategic weapon against competitors, which are often defensive.

Some might be skeptical of the notion that the company's actions are defensive in nature.

"We're just going after the big guys who are going after us, the guys who are not innovating themselves but just copying us and working to crush us," Bezos allegedly told O'Reilly.

Bezos also said he might be willing to consider making a public promise not to go after others for patent infringement.

"Would that be good enough?" O'Reilly wondered in his report. "On the one hand, better half a loaf than none at all. I urge Jeff to do this, but I am worried that it won't be enough. Jeff suspects that there is likely to be some genuine disagreement at the end.

"Somewhere in the course of this line of discussion, Jeff's comments turned from a defense of the right to patent to increasing signs of agreement. He still holds to his need to use any weapon he has --including patents -- to give Amazon the competitive advantage he believes it will need to survive."

O'Reilly invited the Web community to help continue the discussion via a link to a posting area at the bottom of his report.