(Formerly) Boycott Amazon!
The FSF decided to end its boycott of Amazon in September 2002. (We
forgot to edit this page at the time.) We could not tell the precise
result of the lawsuit against Barnes & Noble, but it did not seem to
be very harmful to the defendant. And Amazon had not attacked anyone
Amazon has got a number of other menacing patents since then, but has
not as yet used them for aggression. Perhaps it will not do so. If
it does, we will take a look at how to denounce it.
The rest of this page is as it was in 2001 while the boycott
If you support the boycott,
Please make links to this page
Why we boycott Amazon
Amazon has obtained a US
patent (5,960,411) on an important and obvious idea for
E-commerce: an idea sometimes known as one-click purchasing. The idea
is that your command in a web browser to buy a certain item can carry
along information about your identity. (It works by sending the
server a “cookie”, a kind of ID code that your browser
received previously from the same server.)
Amazon has sued to block the use of this simple idea, showing that
they truly intend to monopolize it. This is an attack against the
World Wide Web and against E-commerce in general.
The idea patented here is just that a company can give you something
which you can subsequently show them to identify yourself for credit.
This is nothing new: a physical credit card does the same job, after
all. But the US Patent Office issues patents on obvious and
well-known ideas every day. Sometimes the result is a disaster.
Today Amazon is suing one large company. If this were just a dispute
between two companies, it would not be an important public issue. But
the patent gives Amazon the power over anyone who runs a web site in
the US (and any other countries that give them similar patents)—power
to control all use of this technique. Although only one company is
being sued today, the issue affects the whole Internet.
Amazon is not alone at fault in what is happening. The US Patent
Office is to blame for having very low standards, and US courts are to
blame for endorsing them. And US patent law is to blame for
authorizing patents on information-manipulating techniques and
patterns of communication—a policy that is harmful in general.
Foolish government policies gave Amazon the opportunity—but an
opportunity is not an excuse. Amazon made the choice to obtain this
patent, and the choice to use it in court for aggression. The
ultimate moral responsibility for Amazon's actions lies with Amazon's
We can hope that the court will find this patent is legally invalid.
Whether they do so will depend on detailed facts and obscure
technicalities. The patent uses piles of semirelevant detail to make
this “invention” look like something subtle.
But we do not have to wait passively for the court to decide the
freedom of E-commerce. There is something we can do right now: we can
refuse to do business with Amazon. Please do not buy anything from
Amazon until they promise to stop using this patent to threaten or
restrict other web sites.
If you are the author of a book sold by Amazon, you can provide
powerful help to this campaign by putting this text into the
“author comment” about your book, on Amazon's web site.
(Alas, it appears they are refusing to post these comments for
If you have suggestions, or if you simply support the boycott, please
send mail to <email@example.com>
to let us know.
Amazon's response to people who write about the patent contains a
subtle misdirection which is worth analyzing:
The patent system is designed to encourage innovation, and we spent
thousands of hours developing our 1-ClickR shopping feature.
If they did spend thousands of hours, they surely did not spend it
thinking of the general technique that the patent covers. So if they
are telling the truth, what did they spend those hours doing?
Perhaps they spent some of the time writing the patent application.
That task was surely harder than thinking of the technique. Or
perhaps they are talking about the time it took designing, writing,
testing, and perfecting the scripts and the web pages to handle
one-click shopping. That was surely a substantial job. Looking
carefully at their words, it seems the “thousands of hours
developing” could include either of these two jobs.
But the issue here is not about the details in their particular
scripts (which they do not release to us) and web pages (which are
copyrighted anyway). The issue here is the general idea, and whether
Amazon should have a monopoly on that idea.
Are you, or I, free to spend the necessary hours writing our own
scripts, our own web pages, to provide one-click shopping? Even if we
are selling something other than books, are we free to do this? That
is the question. Amazon seeks to deny us that freedom, with the eager
help of a misguided US government.
When Amazon sends out cleverly misleading statements like the one
quoted above, it demonstrates something important: they do care what
the public thinks of their actions. They must care—they are a
retailer. Public disgust can affect their profits.
People have pointed out that the problem of software patents is much
bigger than Amazon, that other companies might have acted just the
same, and that boycotting Amazon won't directly change patent law. Of
course, these are all true. But that is no argument against this
If we mount the boycott strongly and lastingly, Amazon may eventually
make a concession to end it. And even if they do not, the next
company which has an outrageous software patent and considers suing
someone will realize there can be a price to pay. They may have
The boycott can also indirectly help change patent law—by calling
attention to the issue and spreading demand for change. And it is so
easy to participate that there is no need to be deterred on that
account. If you agree about the issue, why not boycott
To help spread the word, please put a note about the boycott on your
own personal web page, and on institutional pages as well if you can.
Make a link to this page; updated information will be placed here.
Why the Boycott Continues Given that the Suit has
Amazon.com reported in March 2002 that it had settled its long-running
patent-infringement suit against Barnes & Noble over its 1-Click
checkout system. The details of the settlement were not disclosed.
Since the terms were not disclosed, we have no way of knowing whether this
represents a defeat for Amazon such as would justify ending the boycott.
Thus, we encourage everyone to continue the boycott.
Updates and Links
In this section, we list updates and links about issues related to
Amazon.com, their business practices, and stories related to the boycott.
New information is added to the bottom of this section.
Tim O'Reilly has sent Amazon an
disapproving of the use of this patent,
stating the position about as forcefully as possible given an
unwillingness to stop doing business with them.
Richard M. Stallman has written a
letter to Tim O'Reilly
in regard to the statement by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, which called for software
patents to last just 3 or 5 years.
one of the founding programmers
at Amazon, writes
about the Amazon Boycott.
Nat Friedman wrote in with an
Amazon Boycott success story.
On the side, Amazon is doing
obnoxious things in another courtroom, too.
See http://progfree.org/ and http://endsoftpatents.org for
more information about the broader issue of
Computer Professionals for
Social Responsibility have dropped their affiliation with Amazon.