According to a recent article in InternetNews.com, Amazon has secured the (US) patent for user generated on-site product reviews. So is this the beginning of the end for sites like the Guardian’s user generated travel site, BeenThere , epinions and all the other sites that depend upon user reviews for their content? Probably not.
In 2002 BT unsuccessfully tried to enforce a patent which, they said, covered all hyperlinking. Anyway, this isn’t the first time Amazon has been awarded a patent covering social software / user-generated content. In 2003 they received a patent covering bulletin board (message board) style discussions. Scary stuff, but, unlike their patent for “one click shopping” which they have defended in court, as far as I’m aware, Amazon has never tried to enforce their patent on online discussions.
So why does Amazon bother collecting patents if they aren’t going to use them? Well, it’s fairly clear that, before it started making profits, Amazon had to be seen by investors to be building some sort of value and intellectual property was one way to do this. The discussion patent will have been applied for years before (1999) it was awarded in 2003. Likewise, the reviews patent will have been in the patents approval system for years. My personal opinion (which you shouldn’t act upon without taking advice from a qualified legal professional) is that the on-site reviews patent, like the discussion forum patent, are simply a legacy from when Amazon needed patents to keep investors happy. The patents would be largely unenforceable and, even if they were able to enforce them, the backlash of internet users would likely damage the Amazon brand. It seems unlikely Amazon will ever seek to enforce their shiny new patent.