Amazon Boycott Rhetoric Reaches Absurd Heights

Earlier this week, I wrote a column about the boycott of Amazon.com that has been called for by Richard Stallman, an early developer of the Linux operating system.

My opinion was that Amazon should not be boycotted, which touched off a flurry of debate and commentary. Now, after having examined some of the letters and e-mails, I would like to revisit the subject.

Stallman’s Reasoning

Stallman called for the boycott in response to Amazon’s attempt to prevent barnesandnoble.com from using its patented 1-Click technology to allow repeat shoppers to purchase items without having to re-enter personal information each time.

Stallman, who currently heads the Free Software Foundation, objects to Amazon’s patent because he believes that “it directly affects the freedom of e-commerce.” Additionally, he contends that “patents restrict everybody.”

In September, Amazon was granted the patent for 1-Click after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (US$) going through the grueling application process that must be completed with the U.S. patent office.

So, naturally, when barnesandnoble.com began using similar technology, Amazon filed a complaint the following month.

Amazon’s Reasoning

Amazon feels strongly that it paid a huge price to develop the technology, and is therefore under no obligation to share it with its rivals or with anyone else.

Earlier this month, Amazon was granted a preliminary injunction in the dispute, keeping barnesandnoble.com from using the technology in its checkout service.

Is 1-Click Technology Obvious?

Stallman and his many supporters assert that Amazon may be legally correct in enforcing its patent, but that moral issues will keep the patent from holding up in court.

Additionally, Stallman and his flock keep chanting the mantra that Amazon’s 1-Click is so obvious that any beginner programmer could create it in one evening.

Fine, but I have one question: Why didn’t they? If 1-Click was so easy and obvious, then why didn’t someone else come up with it? Or other “obvious” items like the steam engine or the light bulb, for that matter?

The bottom line is that Amazon was willing to put up the capital to pay technicians and go through the existing patent system to make this “obvious” concept an innovative reality for its customers.

Pie In The Sky

While Stallman and his sycophants find it easy to pontificate and strike out with their heads in the clouds, companies like Amazon have their feet firmly planted on the ground.

If Stallman really wants to take the moral high road, he should take issue with the U.S. patent office. He could begin by donating his time to help bogged down patent officers understand what they say is so obvious.

R&D Is Flourishing

Meanwhile, private-sector research and development (R&D) spending will increase to about $187.2 billion in 2000 from an estimated $169.3 billion in 1999, according to the annual forecast from the contract-research firm Battelle Memorial Institute and R&D Magazine. This projected 10.6 percent increase comes after an exceedingly large 12 percent growth in 1999 spending.

High-tech firms, from giant Microsoft Corp. to the smallest Internet startups, continue to spend a relatively large proportion of their revenues on R&D.

Nonetheless, because of the speed of changing technology, these Web-based companies consider huge budgets on R&D the price for doing business in a brutally competitive marketplace. As a result, we all benefit from the new economy they help create.

I wonder if this investment in technology would continue in Stallman’s patent-less world.

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

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