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O'Reilly Awards $10,000 1-Click Bounty to Three "Runners Up"

by Tim O'Reilly
03/14/2001
Update: 3/15/2001

I've decided to split the $10,000 Bounty on Amazon's 1-Click patent between the three submitters who unearthed prior art that strikes at the heart of Amazon's claims. Even though these three submissions didn't meet every one of the terms of the bounty, they are so significant that I wanted to reward their efforts. The three "runners up," who will each get 1/3 of the Bounty, are:

Chris Kilner, an engineer and former U.S. Patent Office examiner who is now an attorney with Roberts Abokhair & Mardula in Reston, VA. Chris submitted the European patent that describes one-button buying with a TV remote control.

Stuart Geary, a London-based patent attorney at the firm of Venner, Shipley & Co. submitted the U.S. patent on the use of a remote data terminal to place orders.

Gary Noreen, formerly a program manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory now with Viaspace, a technology transfer firm in Altadena, CA, submitted his own patented invention relating to single-action ordering during radio broadcasts.

Congratulations to Chris, Stuart, and Gary. Their contributions, and those of all those who contributed to the BountyQuest search, helped me make a crucial point--that Amazon wasn't the first to realize that 1-Click shopping could be good for business. I hope that by making this information public, I've shed some light on the iterative nature of Internet innovation, as well as the importance of doing a more thorough search for prior art that indicates either development of similar technology, or makes a case for the obviousness of the invention.

Now that I've had a few days to reflect on the submissions and the public response to the announcement, I wanted to add a few thoughts to what I wrote yesterday.

Given that all three of the submissions that came closest to matching Amazon's patent were themselves already in the public patent records, one does have to call into question the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy of both the PTO and patent applicants when it comes to searching for prior art. An affirmative requirement on applicants to search for, disclose, and explain prior art would go a long way towards reducing the clutter of frivolous patents that inventors and entrepreneurs now need to wade through. The fact that the idea of 1-Click shopping was even lampooned in cartoons years before Amazon's "invention" suggests that the bar on "obviousness" has been set far too low. The simple transposition of existing or obvious ideas onto a new medium such as the web should not be treated as an invention worthy of government-backed monopoly protection.

Amazon's innovation was not an invention so much as it was a bold business move, which we should all applaud--and be free to imitate! In a climate where everyone believed that consumers were afraid to give their credit card information online, and put in a thicket of safeguards and confirmation steps, Amazon decided that the convenience of 1-Click ordering was worth the risk. Our prior art searches via BountyQuest suggest that the idea itself was obvious, but that before Amazon, people were afraid to use it on the web. Amazon went against the prevailing wisdom, and built an innovative system that did set new standards in ease of use for web shopping. This was a breakthrough in e-commerce, but it was not an invention as inventions were previously defined, as actual technical innovations. This is in fact the kind of "business method patent" that has been the subject of so much debate in recent years. Giving the kind of business risk-taking demonstrated by Amazon's1-Click system the protection afforded by patents seems to be extremely short-sighted. Fortunately, this view is starting to gain traction among policy makers, at least in the UK. In their summary of the results of their recent consultation on software and business method patents, the UK patent office wrote:

"Innovation is a feature of competition in business methods (whether computer- implemented or not), as companies strive for competitive advantage.... Patents--ie monopolies--could reduce innovation and consumer choice.... The Government's conclusion is that those who favour some form of patentability for business methods have not provided the necessary evidence that it would be likely to increase innovation. Unless and until that evidence is available, ways of doing business should remain unpatentable."

The Internet's initial success came about in large part because developers shared and built upon each other's work. Rather than keeping others from using their innovations, they challenged each other to improve on them. I truly believe that it is still in everyone's best interest--including Amazon's--to keep the flow of innovation coming by encouraging competition rather than seeking to suppress it. We're still in the early days of the Internet revolution. Let's keep charging hard towards the future rather than hunkering down and trying to protect what we've already accomplished!


Tim's Original Letter

Tim O'Reilly's Open Letter: 1-Click Patent Bounty

In February of last year, I threw down the gauntlet to Jeff Bezos. In an open letter, I told him the Amazon patent on 1-Click shopping was not only obvious, it wasn't novel. In addition, I said it was a roadblock to further innovation in the field of e-commerce.

After talking with Jeff, I concluded that his claim of innovation had some merit. On close examination, I also discovered that the 1-Click patent is far narrower than people assume it is. The innovation it claims is based on some very specific software-driven steps in the Web shopping process that were designed to make it simpler and more automatic for consumers to complete e-commerce transactions. But Amazon's case is not entirely watertight. In fact, when the Court of Appeals recently overturned the preliminary injunction that barred barnesandnoble.com from using a single-click system, the court sent a clear message that Amazon's 1-Click patent faced substantial challenges.

And as the Internet community had been very vocal in denouncing the One-Click patent, I still wanted them to have a shot at proving Amazon wrong. I turned to BountyQuest , a web site that allows anyone to offer bounties for prior art information on a patent (disclosure: Jeff Bezos and I were both initial investors in BountyQuest).

In October 2000, I posted a $10,000 Bounty on the 1-Click patent. The results are now in. The breadth, depth, and quality of the prior art documents that my Bounty turned up does, in fact, indicate that 1-Click shopping on the Web wasn't nearly as obvious as we all assumed it was.

People in many areas of commerce, not just on the Web but also TV and radio (as evidenced by some of our prior art submissions), have put a lot of thought into making the shopping experience quicker and easier. We turned up compelling prior art that would never have surfaced in the typical search process, and that potentially narrows the scope and impact of the patent.

In particular, we found one existing European patent, by Thomson Consumer Electronics, for a 1-Click shopping mechanism for interactive television, that clearly predates Amazon's primary claim, and uses language that matches it almost exactly. In addition there was a 1988 patent for an ecommerce system using older-style data terminals, and one from 1994 for a two-way radio shopping system.

However, because of the complexity of Amazon's complete patent, and because it is specific to the Web rather than to these earlier media, we weren't able to match every claim. And in fact, all the prior art that was submitted specifically for the web confirms Amazon's belief that they were doing something original. All of the web submissions focused on the shopping cart model, with multiple stages for checkout. Even systems such as MiniVend, the open source web commerce shopping cart, which could easily be configured for 1-Click, was never demonstrably used in that way.

So I want to offer Jeff something of an apology. Amazon may not have deserved a patent on 1-Click, because of the "teaching" that can be inferred from the earlier patents, but they appear to have been staking out new territory in ease of use for web shopping. However, we do think that the prior art that we found sufficiently narrows the scope of what Amazon can claim that it will be much more difficult for them to enforce their patent. (Note: This is not a legal opinion.)

At the same time, I want to reiterate that my fundamental issue with Amazon was never the specific claims of the 1-Click patent. Even if Amazon did create a genuine web-commerce innovation, I maintain that it was still a mistake for them to patent it. The idea of 1-Click was clearly out there years earlier--even in a Doonesbury cartoon from 1993--and transferring that idea to the web was an inevitable next step in the game of leapfrog that web developers were playing with each other.

Amazon built its business on the backs of Web pioneers who freely shared their work and collectively developed a world-changing technology. I believe Amazon was short-sighted in trying to keep its innovations to itself rather than keeping the web development "flow" going. It's a truism in business that all of the smart people don't work for you. If Amazon wants to reap further benefit from others' Web innovations, they need to nourish the spirit that created the Web in the first place. By filing and then seeking to enforce the 1-Click patent, Amazon alienated the web developers who'd built much of the platform they rely on, and who, in addition, were among their best customers. Despite the results we got from BountyQuest, I still think Amazon made the wrong move.

There's still lots of opportunity to rectify this mistake. Amazon has developed a lot of fascinating technology innovations. They should let others imitate them if they can, or even better, license them freely to others, so we can keep e-commerce a vibrant frontier where we're building the future together, rather than a battleground where the last company standing finds that the battle may not have been worth winning after all.

--Tim O'Reilly