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By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 2006-10-24 Print this article Print

On the IBM patents, however, I think Big Blue deserves even more credit. Take a peek at the actual filings and remember that they were written before the Web existed in any meaningful way, some dating as far back as 1988. To get our historical landmarkers set properly, lets put 1988 into context. The Web was created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989. He didnt have a working system deployed until 1990. From 90 to 92, the Web was still a well-kept secret because it was text-only. It wasnt until 1993—when NCSA Mosaic was launched as the first graphical Web browser—that the business world started to take notice. I think of 1994 as when the Web truly started to take off.
With those dates in mind, remember that IBM filed those patent applications back in 88, 90 and 92. Now go back and look at the full texts of those patents. Say what you will about IBM, but those are some pretty impressive and amazing patent applications. Im not saying Big Blue is entirely in the right here, but I think that kind of insight and vision deserves a little respect. (OK, so IBM filed them when it owned Prodigy, so it gets a few debits for that.)
The problem with fighting patent violations is that they are so incredibly easy to avoid. The patents from IBM are incredibly detailed. Amazon can simply argue that it is not doing it the exact same way as IBM described, therefore there is no violation. Is it close? How different need it be to avoid being in violation? Thats where lawyers earn their GNP salaries. Lets go back to the original premise for a moment. Should an e-commerce player give in and pay IBM royalties for housing an electronic catalog or displaying a banner ad? Part of the problem here is in the timing. IBM has had these patents for a long time. Why didnt it shout this from the highest Web tree back in 94 or 95? Or 99? Even in the Amazon case, IBM admits that it has been negotiating for more than four years. To then announce it on the eve of the holiday shopping season—where many retailers make a huge percentage of their money—seems suspicious. Did IBM want to sit silently by while people built elaborate sites specifically so they could charge royalties? How much deliberate silence can be tolerated before it will be considered a surrender of those rights? Say I own a jewelry store and I watch customers—every day—taking gems from my front counter, and this happens for a dozen years. One day, I point to a customer and shout, "Police! Im being robbed. Arrest that man!" Is the fact that I let thousands of customers get away with it for a dozen years relevant? Most merchants wont ponder such philosophical issues. "Any new kid willing to push around the Amazon bully probably deserves respect, but he definitely deserves some distance," theyll think, adding, "And to be safe, I think Ill give him my lunch money." Evan Schuman is retail editor for Ziff Davis Internets Enterprise Edit group. He has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop anytime soon. He can be reached at Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on technologys impact on retail.

Evan Schuman is the editor of's Retail industry center. He has covered retail technology issues since 1988 for Ziff-Davis, CMP Media, IDG, Penton, Lebhar-Friedman, VNU, BusinessWeek, Business 2.0 and United Press International, among others. He can be reached by e-mail at

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