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Why I am Boycotting Amazon

Amazon recently sued Barnes and Noble for patent infringement.

The patent in question is for an utterly trivial invention called `one-click ordering'. `One-click ordering' means that the first time you order, they remember your address and credit card number in a database, and key the database by a browser cookie. Then if you come back and order again, you don't have to fill out another form; they retrieve the information from the database.

Patents are the result of an exchange between the community and the inventor. The community gives the inventor an exclusive license to an invention in return for the inventor divulging the secret. But in this case there is no secret at all; it is totally obvious to anyone who is even a little bit skilled at web programming. The patent office is not normally supposed to grant patents for inventions that would be obvious to skilled practitioners of the relevant art. I am skilled in the relevant art and to me this invention is really, really, obvious. It is obviously no invention at all. The patent office screwed up here, and Amazon received a valuable license for free at the public expense.

Just because the patent office screwed up does not give Amazon leave to take advantage of the mistake in an unethical way. If your neighbor leaves their door unlocked, you are not entitled to go into their house and take their belongings.

Why the Lawsuit is Unethical

Amazon's lawsuit is unethical because it is bad for everyone but Amazon. You are not supposed to be able to enrich yourself to the detriment of the general public. If Amazon can sue Barnes and Noble for offering `one-click ordering', they can sue anyone. That means that nobody but Amazon is allowed to have this convenient and simple feature on their web site. Every web site in the United States is required to operate in a suboptimal way because of Amazon's actions. That hurts web site designers, programmers, and web customers. Amazon was probably only interested in sabotaging their competitor, Barnes and Noble, but to do it they did not balk at sabotaging everyone else too.

How the Lawsuit Hurts Me

I am an independent programmer. I make a living by programming for my clients, including web ordering systems. Now if one of my clients asks me for a `one-click' ordering system, instead of saying that I know how to do that and it will be easy, I will have to warn them that a `one-click' ordering system may lay them open to a big patent infringement lawsuit from Amazon, and probably they will not be willing to take the risk. Damages for patent infringement suits can be very large. So much the worse for them, their web site, their customers, and for me.

Software patents threaten my livelihood. Every program I write becomes a ticking time bomb because every program is full of obvious techniques that have nevertheless been patented. Every time I write a program I am laying myself open to suits for the most trivial features, such as the use of exclusive-or to draw `rubber bands' in a window system. Big companies may be able to afford to defend against these suits; I can't. I might have to go out of business instead.

Why Boycott?

Amazon's suit is a direct threat to me and my customers. It is against my best interest to give money to a company that is acting directly to put me out of business. I will not do business with Amazon until they abandon their offensive patent lawsuit.

I urge you to do the same. If we mount a strong boycott, Amazon may eventually end their harmful suit, and other companies with absurd software patents may decide not to enforce them for fear of angering their customers. Boycotting may also draw attention to the root issues and yield reform to the broken patent system that abetted Amazon in the first place.

How to Join

Simply buy your books from someone else. There are many booksellers online. Also be sure to write to amazon at to tell them what you are doing, and why. I send a reminder letter to Amazon every time I buy a book from someone else.

Send a copy of your message to to let them know what you are doing.

Copyright (C) 1999, 2000 Mark-Jason Dominus.

Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.

The Boycott So Far

As of 28 April 2000, I have bought $893.44 of books from other companies instead of from Amazon.

Note: Dr. John Keating points out that if you contact a publisher directly, and tell them that Amazon is offering a discounted price on one of their books, they will often sell you the same book for the same price.

For More Information

The Free Software Foundation is leading a boycott of Amazon. I am in support of the FSF's policies on this matter.

Mail me at if you have questions or remarks.

Recent Updates

Update 26 Feb 2000: More Amazon Patent news.

Update 29 Feb 2000: These folks are tallying the number of people involved in the boycott.

Update 2 Mar 2000: Tim O'Reilly, king of O'Reilly and Associates, posted a nice article against the Amazon patents on the O'Reilly web site. O'Reilly invites users to sign his open letter to Jeff Bezos. The signatures so far are available. (Caution: the page is very long.)

Copyright (C) 1999, 2000 Mark-Jason Dominus.

Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.

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