Amazon One-Click Shopping


In the fall of 1997, submitted a patent application entitled "A Method and System for Placing a Purchase Order Via a Communications Network." On September 28, 1999, two years and one week after the application was filed, Amazon was granted United States Patent Number 5,960,411. It is now known as Amazon's "1-Click" patent. The patent describes an online system allowing customers to enter their credit card number and address information just once so that on follow up visits to the website all it takes is a single mouse-click to make a purchase from their website.

U.S. Patent 5,960,411


Just twenty-three days after the 1-Click Patent was issued, filed a lawsuit in the federal district court of Seattle against, a rival online bookseller and their largest competitor. Amazon's goal was to stop Barnesandnoble from using their "Express Lane" shopping process on the grounds that it infringed upon Amazon's patented 1-Click business method.

At that time, Barnesandnoble offered two purchasing options to their customers. The first was a virtual "Shopping Cart" that customers could fill with items they wanted to buy. With their shopping finished, customers could "check out" their items and complete the buying process by providing their credit card number and shipping information. A second online purchasing option was called the "Express Lane." This feature allowed pre-registered customers to bypass the Shopping Cart entirely and purchase a book with a single mouse click. The key enabler was a cookie that allowed Barnesandnoble's server to recognize the purchaser and relate their order to specific credit and shipping information previously submitted by the purchaser and stored on Barnesandnoble's server. This, claimed Amazon, violated their 1-Click Patent.

In a forty-page opinion, the court sided with Amazon on December 1, 1999, granting it a preliminary injunction against Barnesandnoble. Under the terms of the injunction, Barnesandnoble was ordered to remove the Express Lane feature from its Web site. Not surprisingly, Barnesandnoble appealed. However, the Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the Seattle court. According to the terms of its December 8 order, Barnesandnoble's Express Lane was closed immediately.

Seattle Court Ruling, December 1, 1999


Industry studies show that between sixty and sixty-five percent of online shopping baskets are abandoned before they are checked out. According to the Seattle court, Barnesandnoble's experience with shopping carts was little better than the industry average, with over half of their shopping carts being abandoned. Presumably, many of those abandoned shopping carts represented lost sales.

The primary reason for abandoned shopping carts seems to be buyer confusion and annoyance with the online purchasing process. By adopting a one click method for online shopping and permitting their customers to avoid shopping carts entirely, both Amazon and Barnesandnoble naturally hoped to make the process simpler, easier and faster, thereby capturing a lot of that lost business. Barnesandnoble's Express Lane was evidently successful, since a large percentage of their customers had chosen to utilize the Express Lane rather than the shopping basket.

With the crucial Christmas buying season in its last few weeks, the loss of the Express Lane was certainly a setback for Barnesandnoble. Barnesandnoble was left solely with its traditional shopping cart method, while Amazon could also provide its customers with an easier 1-Click route. It is not clear how much revenue Barnesandnoble lost as a result.

Unwittingly, Amazon appears to have sparked a growing movement against software patents. Perhaps the most outspoken opponent of Internet method patents in general, and Amazon's in particular, is Richard Stallman. Stallman is a developer and programmer who heads the GNU Project - Free Software Foundation. He does not approve of this patent because of the restrictions it places on e-commerce. On December 13, 1999, Stallman published an article in Linuxtoday urging a boycott of Amazon, contending that "if this were just a dispute between two companies, it would not be an important public issue." But, he adds, Amazon's patent suit is "an attack against the World Wide Web and against E-commerce in general."

Interestingly, Paul Barton-Davis, one of Amazon's founding programmers, agrees with Stallman. Barton-Davis claims that was not the only company to have "benefited enormously from the wealth of ideas circulating in the open and/or free software world of the middle 1990's." "'s early development," he adds, "relied on the use of tools that could not have been developed if other companies and individuals had taken the same approach to technological innovation that the company is now following." He goes on to call Amazon's 1-Click patent "a cynical and ungrateful use of an extremely obvious technology."

Tim O'Reilly added his voice to the debate in an online statement posted on February 29, 2000. O'Reilly is President and CEO of O'Reilly & Associates, Inc., a publisher of technical books. He has also been an influential player involved in discussing and shaping internet trends. In his statement, he declines to join Stallman's boycott because he thinks that Amazon provides a great service. However, he views Amazon's 1-Click Patent as "a land grab, an attempt to hoodwink a patent system that has not gotten up to speed on the state of the art in computer science." While he is not opposed to software patents as a whole, he believes that patenting such obvious ideas is ludicrous.

The debate is far from over. In the meantime, websites such as and continue to urge customers to stop supporting Amazon. In addition, some are pushing for a ban on all software patents like the League for Programming Freedom.

Boycott Amazon! by Richard Stallman

Paul Barton-Davis's Opinion

Tim O'Reilly's opinion

The League for Programming Freedom


Tim O'Reilly has put up a webpage about a long conversation he and Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, recently had on the topic of software patents. Their comments prove to be extremely helpful in trying to untangle the messy web of ethics surrounding this issue.

In defense of Amazon, Jeff Bezos said the company spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars to develop the system. They subsequently patented the process because they didn't want to see an innovation they spent time and money developing be adopted by their competitors.

Amazon started applying for patents because they realized that they would be under attack by players who might well one day be able to put them out of business. "We don't want to be another Netscape," says Bezos, "B&N isn't doing any innovation at all on the Web--all they do is copy Amazon feature for feature, sometimes down to the exact wording. Is that right?"

Bezos adds that Amazon has no intention of pursuing the many small, independent developers who are already using 1-click purchasing on their sites. "We're just going after the big guys who are going after us, the guys who are not innovating themselves but just copying us and working to crush us."

It seems clear at this point that Amazon was not just cynically abusing the patent system. From their perspective, they were simply using any weapon they could find, in this case patents, to give them the competitive advantage needed to survive against the companies trying to put them out of business.

Still, the legitimacy of patenting such a simple idea remains questionable. It's still unclear as to whether Amazon was indeed the first to do implement such a purchasing process. It's also hard to believe that if they hadn't done it first that others wouldn't have come up with it just as easily on their own.

Bezos admits that 1-Click purchasing is trivial to duplicate. He contends that what makes this patent viable has nothing to do with its implementation, but with its reframing of the purchasing problem. At the time he came up with 1-click shopping, everyone was locked into the mindset of the shopping cart metaphor. On the Web, he realized, all you had to do was point and click on an item, and it was yours.

What's more, Bezos continues, small inventions can often seem extremely obvious in retrospect. Patent literature is full of this kind of thing. The significance of an invention isn't how hard it is to copy, but how it reframes the problem in a new way.

Bezos adds that it's unfair to criticize the Patent Office given the current state of the law and the resources they operate with. One can't simply attribute this patent, as many do, to their incompetence. He points out that Barnesandnoble had a chance to present prior art in court. They did, in fact, present significant evidence, yet the judge still granted a preliminary injunction. Bezos feels that this is fairly strong indication (coupled with the press coverage when the 1-Click feature was introduced) that the feature was a true Amazon innovation.

In reality, the roadblocks placed in the way of Barnesandnoble by Amazon's patents are small. All it took to get around it was adding a second click for the user to confirm the order. One might view the ramifications in two ways: either that this is not a patent that is going to fundamentally ruin e-commerce; or that pursuing such patents is a bad idea because they don't do much good for the companies that have them, and they are harmful to the software industry.

On March 9, 2000, Jeff Bezos posted an open letter on the subject of patents on the Amazon website. While expressing that he doesn't think it would be right to give up all software patents, he makes several suggestions for reforming the patent system. Most importantly, he proposes that the lifespan of software patents should be shortened from 17 years to between 3 and 5 years. "At Internet speed," he says, "you don't need 17 years." Also, he suggests that there be a short period before a software patent is issued to give the Internet community a chance to provide prior art. The result of these changes, he hopes, will be fewer patents issued with a higher average quality and a shorter lifespan.

Tim O'Reilly's Conversation with Jeff Bezos

An Open Letter from Jeff Bezos on the Subject of Patents

Additional Sources:

"Madness in the Method: Will 'Method of Doing Business' Patents Undermine the Web?" by Ralph J. Libsohn, from the March 2000 issue of Netcommerce Magazine

"Patently Absurd" by James Gleick, from the New York Times, March 12, 2000

Last modified: Mon Jun 5 01:05:36 PDT 2000