Patent trolls are a real thing. These companies set up shop and do nothing but patent ideas that someone else might have in the future so that they can swoop in and take everyone to court for infringement. On occasion, their craftiness pays off, and they manage to either squash new technology that could change our lives for the better, or they bilk a legitimate company—the company that actually did the work to develop the ideas—out of millions of dollars.
Then, there are companies like Amazon. Upon first glance, this legit company has no reason to claim ridiculous patents, right? They’ve got enough going on and plenty of money coming in. But…no. They went and patented something so incredibly ridiculous that the world gave a collective gasp of disbelief. And then Stephen Colbert soundly trounced them for their stupidity.
Photos on a white background have now been patented. Who the heck thinks they can patent photos on a white background? Amazon, of course. Of course. Now, why Amazon wants to put the kibosh on any other person using this particular photography technique, which, by the way, has been around since, oh, the dawn of photography itself, is anyone’s guess.
So, there's one patent you might be infringing upon. Are you supposed to go back through all your past photography and toss the photos? Will your product images need to be updated? Who knows?
This made me wonder: If Amazon could get away with this stuff, what have other legitimate companies tried to claim as their own? And are these patented techniques already widely used by other companies?
Before we hop right into this mess, let me reassure you that I’m no patent lawyer. What we discuss here is simply the interpretation I, or previous reporters and bloggers, came to when examining some of the patents eCommerce and tech giants have claimed in recent years. The simplest explanation for this tomfoolery is that Amazon, Google, and Apple are simply protecting themselves from future patent trolls by claiming the patents first. What they've really done is set themselves up as patent trolls in the eyes of consumers. Here is some of the most ridiculous and petty gesturing I’ve ever seen among grown, exceptionally intelligent adults.
Since I already brought them up, let’s talk about Amazon’s 1-Click patent. These guys said, “You know what? Let’s make buying stuff online as easy and frictionless as possible. We’ll take all the work out of making a purchase by saving the financial and location info for every buyer and letting them buy stuff by just clicking one button.”
Genius. And selfless, too.
No, wait. Not selfless.
Because after Amazon gave this great gift to the ecommerce world, they then said no one else could use it. And they were so serious about that, they made Apple license the technology for use in iTunes.
So, what? If I want convenient 1-Click purchasing, I can only buy from Amazon? That’s the idea. I can tell you, though, that I’ve made a few other purchases with only one click, and they weren’t from Amazon. Who’s infringing? Maybe your ecommerce company is.
The Progress Bar
Now, none of us are strangers to the progress bar, right? We download something, and a little bar pops up to let us know how much longer we have to wait. Or, in the case of my usual pizza delivery company, that bar tells me when my food will arrive. Hundreds of companies make use of that little bar, with percentages telling us what has been completed and what is left to finish.
The problem is, Apple owns the patent on the progress bar. Yeah. When ecommerce sites are nice enough to show you how much longer you need to wait for your purchase to complete, they’re messing with Apple. When the software you just downloaded (through a decidedly non-Apple company) provides an update on your installation, they’re messing with Apple.
How detailed is the patent? Again, I’m no lawyer. My guess is that it covers all manner of sins, and Apple just hasn’t gotten around to all those people infringing upon their patent.
Online Gift Cards and E-Gifting
This is a huge blow to eCommerce companies, if, of course, they choose to acknowledge it. How many etail sites do you know that offer an online gift card? This would be a gift that is delivered electronically and claimed electronically so that no physical gift card ever changes hands.
The problem is, Amazon patented this a few years ago. Not only do they hold the patent on e-gift cards, but they also patented e-gifting. That means you can go choose a gift for someone and have a voucher delivered to their email so they can claim it. While that may not be a practice used by many other eCommerce companies, it’s still in use outside of Amazon. Maybe by your own eCommerce site.
Clickable Links in Email
What is this? When you include clickable links in your email, you’re infringing upon Apple’s patent? Absurd.
Who doesn’t use clickable links in their emails? Ecommerce marketing efforts are at the top of the list, but they’re not the only people who use this method. We’re willing to bet pretty much anyone who has ever used email at any point in their lives, whether for work or for personal messages, has included a clickable link.
What are Apple’s lawyers planning to do about that?
Mobile commerce is huge and only getting bigger. One of the very abilities that makes mobile commerce such a force to be reckoned with is in-app purchasing. You know, like when you’re in the middle of a game like Bejeweled and lose all your lives but you want to keep playing, so you click that little button and buy more time? I mean, I’ve never done that or anything, but surely some people have. Or maybe you’re playing the Covet Fashion app and run out of diamonds so you can’t buy any of the clothes from last season, so you click the little button and buy some? Never done that either, I swear.
Games aren’t the only apps that make purchasing possible, but they’re certainly the biggest targets for Lodsys, the company that patented the ability to buy within an app.
Seriously. Someone holds the patent on podcasts. What I don’t understand is why so many websites popped up with podcasts before this guy jumped in and said, “I command thee to stop!” (Disclaimer: Not a direct quote.)
If your company likes to record interviews, the latest news, and other information for customers to download or stream, you’re infringing upon this patent. The same guy who patented this also took Apple to court over downloadable song lists, so it’s a pretty good bet your company’s not too big for him to mess with, too.
Fortunately, Adam Carolla is out there fighting for your right to podcast.
Filing a Patent By Computer
Remember how I said Amazon’s photography patent was the most ridiculous ever? I may have lied. Turns out, there’s a patent on filing a patent. That means any company who files for a patent electronically is, in fact, infringing upon someone else’s patent.
I give up. Will breathing be patented next? Maybe Amazon already holds that one and we just don’t know it yet.
Originally published Jun 2, 2014 10:00:00 AM, updated October 12 2023