Score One Click for Common Sense

On the business scorecard, it wasn’t much of a victory for Barnesandnoble.com — and it may only be a fleeting one at that.

But in reality, the decision to lift the preliminary injunction against Barnesandnoble.com using Amazon’s 1-Click technology is a victory for common sense. And if Barnesandnoble.com ultimately prevails in the case, the decision will be a win for the entire e-commerce community.

What’s at issue at this point is not whether Barnesandnoble infringes on Amazon’s patented method, known as 1-Click, for rushing shoppers through the checkout process by using saved information. It may have done so. What’s at issue — and rightly so — is whether the 1-Click patent is valid in the first place.

The court did not rule on the patent’s validity. However, by lifting the injunction that was in place all through the holiday shopping season, the court is throwing the question back into doubt.

First on the Scene

Amazon’s case may be strong. It clearly had 1-Click checkout first, and applied for and received a U.S. patent.

But is 1-Click the kind of technology meant to be protected by patent law? I don’t think so and here’s why, with the advanced warning that I’m not a technical wizard:

My guess is there are probably many ways to configure a checkout system that saves information somewhere and retrieves it as needed to enable regular customers to hurry through with their shopping cart.

So is 1-Click a novel invention or simply an obvious way to design the checkout page of an e-commerce site? If it’s the latter, it’s going to be up an uphill fight for Amazon. As well it should be.

Whose Click Is It Anyway?

During the holidays, Barnesandnoble.com customers had to use two clicks to check out, as the e-tailer changed its site to comply with the preliminary injunction.

Barnesandnoble.com hasn’t said whether it will use a one-click or a two-click checkout from now until the case goes to trial later this year. Doing so could mean increased monetary damages, should they lose.

But Barnesandnoble.com most likely won’t lose. By lifting the injunction, the court indicated that it did not believe that Amazon would ultimately win the case. So Barnesandnoble.com should go ahead and give its customers the one-click option again.

So, for that matter, should other e-tailers. It’s a great idea and Amazon had it first. But that doesn’t give the giant e-tailer the right to call the idea Amazon’s alone.

God Bless America

Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos sounded the patriotic freedom alarm when his company’s patent originally came under attack, saying: “The reason we have a patent system in this country is to encourage people to take these kind of risks and make these kind of investments for customers.”

But the rewards, Mr. Bezos, have to be commensurate with the risks. Amazon customers have benefited from the 1-Click checkout, to be sure, but so has Amazon. By volunteering to provide that information up front and having it stored indefinitely, customers have given Amazon a powerful database. It is precisely that database that Amazon has not hesitated to claim as its own, much to the chagrin of online privacy groups.

Did Amazon really take enough risks to give it the right to claim that any other Web merchant’s effort to arrive at a similar one-click system lies in the shadow of those first attempts, requiring the merchant to pay a financial duty to move forward? Hardly.

One, Two, Buy Some Shoes

Barnesandnoble.com says that its two-click checkout is working just fine and that it may never go back to the one-click-and-out system. It may be too little too late at this point, anyway, given the way Amazon has solidified its position in so much of the online retail world.

Still, checking out of an e-tail site with just one click is not a technology, it’s a process. Some companies aren’t in the position of asking customers to voluntarily give up their information for permanent storage “just in case” they return. And others don’t want the privacy and security headaches.

But those that want to offer their customers the best possible shopping experience shouldn’t be blocked from doing so just because Amazon arrived there first. The 1-Click patent isn’t about a novel technology. No one accuses Barnesandnoble.com of stealing the blueprints. It’s just an idea.

Where would e-commerce be if every idea for making shopping better were protected by patents and licensing fees? Yes, innovation might still occur, as Bezos suggests. But who would be around to enjoy it?

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


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