I Need a One Click: The Controversy and Future Surrounding Amazon’s 1-Click Patent - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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I Need a One Click: The Controversy and Future Surrounding Amazon’s 1-Click Patent

I Need a One Click: The Controversy and Future Surrounding Amazon’s 1-Click Patent

After eighteen years, Amazon’s 1-Click patent in the United States finally expired on September 11, 2017 following nearly two decades of controversy and criticism.1 The 1-Click patent should be familiar to anyone who has used Amazon in the past: when you want to buy something on Amazon, you have the option to only click one button on the page to purchase it immediately. This patent has also been implemented in products such as the Amazon Dash button and the smart-speaker Amazon Echo.2 Amazon first filed to register 1-Click in 1997 as a business method, a type of patent which claims a new method of doing business.3 Unlike standard patents, this method doesn’t register a physical object but instead a brand new business idea or process.4 A business method patent must only satisfy three elements to be registered: the business method must be (1) new, (2) novel, and (3) non-obvious.5 Many have worried, however, that such patents made during the Dot Com era were too broad and, consequently, too powerful.

The implications of 1-Click’s power were apparent almost immediately. As soon as Amazon was granted the 1-Click patent in September 1999, it brought suit against its biggest rival, Barnes & Noble, for using a proprietary version of 1-Click known as “ExpressLane.”6 Although Barnes & Noble was initially confident in the legality of its system, going as far as having a representative publically accuse Amazon of being desperate and thanking them for the free publicity, Amazon was granted an injunction against ExpressLane, forbidding Barnes & Noble from using the system for two years.7 This two-year period included two consecutive holiday seasons which, some argue, was a crucial factor in Amazon eventually overtaking its competitor.8 Conversely, Apple decided to avoid a fight with Amazon and instead licensed the 1-Click patent outright in 2000 allowing consumers to purchase content and applications on the iTunes store with just one click.9

The broadness of the 1-Click patent, as well as the amount of time it has lasted as a business method patent, has been the subject of much discussion since 1-Click’s inception. James Gleick, in an editorial for the New York Times in 2000, wrote that “when 21st-century historians look back at the breakdown of the United States patent, they will see a turning point in the case of Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com.”10 Some law firms discussed what the validity of patents like 1-Click could mean for the business method and software patent world.11 In 2000, Jeff Bezos, the chief executive officer of Amazon himself, implored the United States government in an open letter to reduce the lifespan of business method and software patents from seventeen years to three or five years.12 Despite this implicit criticism of his own patent, however, Bezos did not see any reason to relinquish the 1-Click patent to the public domain, likely aware of how much Amazon stood to gain from licensing fees and impulse purchases alone. Today, criticism of Amazon’s 1-Click patent has persisted with some, like UC San Diego Rady School of Management’s Ken Wilbur, arguing that the patent should never have been granted in retrospect.13 “Imagine Walmart patented only making their customers wait in the checkout line once,” Wilbur told NPR in a discussion about the patent, “it’s just ludicrous.”14

While many major tech companies are now working to deploy their own proprietary versions of 1-Click in the wake of the patent’s expiration, some, like Microsoft and Google, have signed on to a years-long initiative by the World Wide Web Consortium to create a universal 1-Click standard to be used throughout the entire web.15 This ambitious endeavor will likely still be met with challenges from companies like Amazon and PayPal which already ways to re-use one’s payment information throughout the web.16 Regardless of the outcome in the payment methods war in the wake of 1-Click’s expiration, the question as to the lengthy lifetime of business method and software patents ultimately remains unanswered.

  1. See David Lumb, Amazon waves goodbye to its one-click purchase patent, Engadget (Sep. 14, 2017), https://www.engadget.com/2017/09/14/amazon-waves-goodbye-to-its-one-click-purchase-patent/  [https://perma.cc/S8K8-NXTD].

  2. Id.

  3. See Ben Fox Rubin, The death of Amazon’s 1-Click patent could save shoppers, cnet (Sep. 12, 2017), https://www.cnet.com/news/the-death-of-amazons-1-click-patent-could-save-shoppers/ [https://perma.cc/NN7W-5E6D].

  4. See Julia Dewitt, Amazon’s 1-Click Patent Is About To Expire. What’s The Big Deal?, NPR (Sep. 6, 2017), http://www.npr.org/2017/09/06/548819270/amazon-s-1-click-patent-is-about-to-expire-what-s-the-big-deal/ [https://perma.cc/UX8X-32T5].

  5. Id.

  6. See Amazon sues Barnesandnoble.com over patent, cnet (Jan. 2, 2002), https://www.cnet.com/news/amazon-sues-barnesandnoble-com-over-patent/ [https://perma.cc/68UE-RWA8].

  7. Id.

  8. See Rubin, supra note 2. See also Dewitt, supra note 3.

  9. See Apple Licenses Amazon.com 1-Click Patent and Trademark, Apple (Sep. 18, 2000), https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2000/09/18Apple-Licenses-Amazon-com-1-Click-Patent-and-Trademark/ [https://perma.cc/DKY6-S2PH]

  10. Keith Collins, A patent that helped Amazon take over online commerce is about to expire, Quartz (Aug. 19, 2017), https://qz.com/1057490/a-patent-that-helped-amazon-take-over-online-commerce-is-about-to-expire/ [https://perma.cc/G863-LM8U].

  11. See The Effects of the “One-Click” Patent and Reversal of the Amazon.com Decision – What Does It Mean for “Business Method” Patents?, WilmerHale (Apr. 1, 2001), https://www.wilmerhale.com/pages/publicationsandnewsdetail.aspx?NewsPubId=88157 [https://perma.cc/JH2E-NUJQ].

  12. See Jeff Bezos, Bezos and O’Reilly Spearhead Call for Patent Reform, O’Reilly (March 9, 2000), http://archive.oreilly.com/pub/a/oreilly/news/amazon_patents.html [https://perma.cc/86PJ-S8JP].

  13. See Dewitt, supra note 3.

  14. Id.

  15. See Nathaniel Popper, What if ‘One Click’ Buying Were Internetwide?, The New York Times (Sep. 25, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/26/business/dealbook/what-if-one-click-buying-were-internetwide.html?mcubz=0 [https://perma.cc/P984-HPPW]. See also BI Intelligence, Amazon’s patent on one-click payments to expire, Business Insider (Jan. 5, 2017), http://www.businessinsider.com/amazons-patent-on-one-click-payments-to-expire-2017-1/ [https://perma.cc/3YXE-HJTQ].

  16. See Popper, supra note 15.

Michael Rivera

Michael Rivera is a second year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law, a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Journal, and a prolific impulse clicker.