My Conversation with Jeff Bezos
Tim O'Reilly, March 2, 2000
[Note: Please leave your thoughts and suggestions at the end of this
article. Tim O'Reilly wants your ideas of how Amazon.com should
respond to the patent issue and contribute to the Internet development
My February 29
column about Amazon's patents on oreilly.com, and the
overwhelming support from all of you, certainly got Amazon's attention. I got
a polite but short reply when I sent my first, private letter back in
January. Yesterday, I got a call from Jeff. We talked for over an hour and
This is my report on that call, and what progress we made.
I want to start out by saying that one of my first goals in the conversation
was not to lambaste Jeff or his company, but to listen to him. I'd given him
a public eyeful of my opinions, and I felt I owed him a chance to respond. So
the first thing I'm going to report on is what he says about why Amazon did
what they did, and what kind of sense those arguments made to me. Then I'm
going to talk about what I suggested in response, and where we ended up.
Note that comments I ascribe to Jeff or myself are not
literal quotes for the most part, and simply represent my
attempt to capture the gist of our argument. Note also that
I've taken some liberties with the order of the
conversation, to make the overall narrative clearer. We had
many sallies back and forth that I've smoothed into a single
To cut the suspense short, while I don't think that we're
all the way to a happy ending, we had an extremely
productive conversation. We each made some
important points that resonated with the other,
and while our central disagreement remains unresolved, I
think that we've laid out the issues in a way that will lead
to fruitful further discussion. I'm hopeful that you will
also regard this conversation as progress, and stay with us
as we try to take it all the way through to a conclusion.
First off, Jeff wanted to explain why he thought 1-click
was original enough to patent. It has nothing to do with
the implementation, which he admits is fairly trivial to
duplicate, but with the reframing of the problem. At the
time he came up with 1-click shopping, everyone was locked
in to the shopping cart metaphor, because that's what you do
in the real world. You pick up an item and take it to the
counter to buy it. On the Web, he realized, something very
different was possible: all you had to do was point to an
article, and it was yours.
Tim O'Reilly talking to Jeff Bezos.
Phrased that way, rather than in the convoluted language of
the patent, I could see that Amazon was not just cynically
abusing the patent system. Jeff could in fact be claiming
in good faith that he had made a seemingly small but
nonetheless significant innovation. I don't know if Jeff is
right that Amazon was the absolute first to do such a thing--and
I'd love to hear from any of our readers who believe
that they implemented such a system before Amazon--but I
could see that he was sincere.
Jeff argued further that you can't just attribute this
patent, as many do, to patent office incompetence. He
pointed out that Barnes & Noble had a chance to present
prior art in court, and that after a review of all the
evidence B&N was able to dig up, the judge granted a
preliminary injunction. Jeff feels that this is fairly
strong evidence (coupled with the press coverage when the
1-Click feature was introduced) that the feature was an
What's more, Jeff went on, small inventions can often seem
extremely obvious in retrospect. The patent literature is
full of this kind of thing. The significance of an
invention isn't how hard it is to copy, but how it reframes
the problem in a new way.
This may be true, I replied. But it is hard to believe that
if Amazon hadn't introduced 1-click ordering (if they were
indeed first to do it), that someone else wouldn't have done
this. It beggars the imagination that this is so
significant and unexpected an innovation that others should
be prevented from using it. Patents are meant to promote
the common welfare, the idea being that certain ideas won't
be developed without government providing a degree of
protection. Is this an idea that required that kind of
protection to be developed?
Jeff countered that Amazon has made countless other
innovations in Web commerce that it didn't patent, and that
have been widely copied. For one example, he pointed to the
way that they publish sales rankings. He actually wishes
they had patented a few more of these things.
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.
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."
Jeff: While we may be large for an internet
company, we're small in the retailing world. WalMart
is 70 times the size of amazon.com, and there is no
reason to believe they are hesitant to use their market
power. B&N isn't doing any
innovation at all on the Web--all they do is copy Amazon
feature for feature, sometimes down to the exact wording.
Is that right? he asked.
How would you feel if Amazon
ended up being acquired by WalMart as Netscape was acquired
by AOL? Don't you wonder what might have happened if Netscape
had filed a few patents?
Amazon isn't the bully here. In fact, we are
standing up to a bully. These are companies that have been
extremely aggressive in stamping out competition in the
bricks and mortar world, and they are bringing their entire
arsenal to bear on Amazon.
Point to Jeff. Amazon's failure would be a bad outcome.
Regardless of what we may feel about the patentability of
its ideas, or about software patents in general, or about
B&N, Amazon has been an innovator and a leader, as Netscape
was once an innovator and a leader. Our industry is
impoverished by Netscape's fall from leadership, as it would
be impoverished if Amazon were to fail and be acquired by a
less visionary company.
Is Amazon really in danger of that failure? The growing
impatience of stock market analysts with Amazon's lack of
profitability makes that less unthinkable than it once was,
and Jeff may be right to be paranoid. But if Amazon's
success really hangs on such a slender thread, then they
deserve to lose their place in the sun.
Jeff replied that there are ten thousand slender threads,
and to win against entrenched competitors, you need as many threads as you
can get. Patents are only one small part of the competitive arsenal.
However, we didn't really go deeply into the extent of
Amazon's danger. Here's where we did go:
We both agreed that the roadblocks placed in the way of B&N
by Amazon's patents are small. After all, what
did it take B&N to work around the 1-click patent? They
had to add a second click for the user to confirm the order.
To Jeff, this suggests that this is not a fundamental patent
that is going to freeze up e-commerce.
To Tim, this suggests all the more that pursuing such
patents is a bad idea. They don't do Amazon that much good,
and they do the software industry a lot of harm.
Tim: With the Web we've had this incredibly fertile period marked by a
great deal of sharing and consequent innovation, most of it
by independent developers who've learned by looking at what
others were doing, imitating it and then playing leapfrog.
And it is these developers whose efforts are most harmed by
the fear that they may be sued by a player like Amazon.
Jeff: We aren't going after those developers. There are
lots of people using 1-click purchasing on their sites
whom we aren't suing. 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.
Tim: Would you be willing to make some kind of public
promise that you won't be going after other people about
Jeff: I'll think about it and talk with my lawyers to see
if there's any way we could do that without harming our suit
Hmmm. Would that be good enough? 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.
If it's at Amazon's discretion to decide who is a no-account
imitator threatening Amazon, and so subject to any defensive
tactics, and who is an independent player, aren't we still
in the same zone of fear and uncertainty?
My biggest worry, I say, is that of bad example. When a
good guy like Amazon, who has been an innovator, starts
suing over software patents, that gives cover to someone
like Jay Walker of Priceline, who runs a patent mill whose
explicit business model is to make money from patent fees.
Not to mention companies like IBM, who by some reports are
the biggest thugs around in the patent space.
Yes, Jeff, you're right that you aren't the biggest
offender, and that it seems unfair to single you out when
there are so many others who are doing so much more damage.
You are being made an example of precisely because you are a
good guy and Amazon a great company, which does care about
both customers and innovation, as you said to me in your
original email response. That's why it's so important that
you set a good example.
I'm mindful of a wonderful article called "The Tipping Point,"
by Malcolm Gladwell, that appeared several years ago in The
New Yorker, which applied theories of epidemiology to social
phenomena. (Gladwell has apparently just published a book
of the same name, which I haven't read yet, but is
presumably an expansion of the article.) Gladwell's basic
concept is that an infection turns into an epidemic when the
rate of infection is higher than the rate at which people
die or recover. There is therefore a point (the tipping
point) at which a relatively small intervention can have
disproportionately large effects. This is why, for example,
cleaning up graffiti or petty crime can turn a neighborhood
around and reduce the incidence of more serious crimes.
I didn't actually mention the tipping point in my
conversation with Jeff, but it certainly shaped my argument.
The Web has been developed under a certain set of informal
groundrules, where imitation was the sincerest form of
flattery. Those rules are under attack, as companies decide
the Web is "good enough" and now they are going to change
the rules under which it developed, and stop others from
copying them. We have to strike now, before exclusionary
and proprietary approaches become accepted practice.
At the end of the day, a culture is ruled not just by its
laws but by its social norms. The social norms of the
Internet and of the Open Source community, which have proven
so productive in the development of the Web, need to be
recognized, honored, and upheld. The public relations cost
of violating those norms needs to be high.
I cited sustainable agriculture as a guiding metaphor. If
you take from the soil and don't give anything back, crop
yields eventually decline. If you look at the computer
industry (and in fact most industries that rely on
proprietary roadblocks to innovation), they resemble
slash-and-burn agriculture. You strip the soil of its
nutrients and move on. A fertile new field is developed,
usually by people on the fringes of commercial activity, who
are building for the love of it. There is a rich soil of
ideas, the shared heritage of all practitioners in the
field. Innovation comes naturally, since anyone can build
on what has gone before. Talent is naturally rewarded.
As commercial activity moves in, the field is fenced off.
Innovations are no longer contributed back but are hoarded
within corporations. Imitation is still possible, but
requires re-implementation from scratch, which raises the
barrier to entry. Companies start to see ideas as scarce
resources that need to be protected (and yes, they are
getting scarcer, though no one seems to ask why), and
eventually they start suing each other to keep others from
copying what they've done.
We saw this in the early days of the PC industry. The open
hardware platform allowed small developers to enter the
market, and there was a fury of innovation until some of the
players got big enough to forget the rules of the game as
they'd played it when they were young. Instead, they
started playing by the rules of older, stagnant industries.
Apple sued Microsoft over ideas that they themselves had
copied from Xerox PARC; Lotus sued Borland; Microsoft didn't
sue, but they developed an awesome array of tools to keep
others from copying what they were doing. It became a
winner-takes-all game where financial and legal engineering
took precedence over technical innovation.
The desktop software world had become a wasteland
by the early 90's. If the Internet hadn't come along (a new
fallow field, with rich soil laid down by twenty years of
open exchange of ideas), Microsoft's victory would have
turned hollow. Instead, they got a new wave of ideas, from
an environment where ideas are grown, not just consumed. In
short, hoarding of ideas may lead to short term advantage
for your company, but long term, it's bad for the
environment...an environment that you yourself depend on.
So, yes, maybe it's far fetched that something as small as
the Amazon 1-click patent could be the beginning of the
end. But it's a sign that the rules are changing. And the
long term consequences will be bad for all of us.
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. Still, the sustainable agriculture metaphor makes
a lot of sense to him.
Yes, it's true, he noted, that when companies like
Apple and Lotus turned to lawsuits rather than engineering
to beat their competition, they were losing their edge, and
it was the start of a long downward slide.
At this point, it started to feel like Jeff and I were
brainstorming together about other ways than patents to solve
his competitive problem.
So, we started to ask, isn't the right way for Amazon to
proceed to just keep out-innovating those big, hostile
companies? How can Amazon develop strategic advantages by
what they give away rather than what they try to keep others
from using? How could they become more active in giving
back to the innovative developers who will keep giving back
Amazon has already become the reference site of record for
the publishing industry, the site that everyone uses
to search for information about books. How about ways to
make Amazon even more useful for research as well as
commerce, with a public API for cooperating applications?
Wouldn't that be the Internet way, to keep yourself at the
center of the expanding universe of new possibilities,
rather than trying to close the gate behind you?
I won't go into details of all of the possibilities we
talked about. The conversation was exhilarating, and I
really felt that Jeff is sincere about wanting to think
about the problems I raised with his approach, but in the
end it is actions that will speak.
Right now, the immediate actions that we agreed on were
- For Amazon.com to think hard about
what kind of assurances they could give to independent
developers about their safety from patent lawsuits.
- To continue our conversation about patents, openness, and
- For me to write up our conversation so far and share it
with the public, even in its inconclusive state. After all,
one of the rules of the Internet, as articulated so
Manifesto, is that a market is
a conversation. We don't have an answer yet, but we're
I'd like to invite you into this conversation.
What do you think about Jeff's assertion that Amazon is
under attack from ruthless competitors who might have the
strength to bring them down? Even if this is true, is a
patent lawsuit a legitimate way to defend against them?
What kind of public stand would you like to see Amazon take
on patent issues?
How could Amazon best support further innovation on the
Internet? How would you like to see them give back to the
Thanks for all your support, --Tim O'Reilly
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