NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #138
by Pat Holt

book Friday, March 17, 2000:

A FAR CRY FROM SELLING BOOKS

LETTERS

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A FAR CRY FROM SELLING BOOKS

I think it's great that publisher Tim O'Reilly - last seen criticizing Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com for using software patents to "fence in" the Internet (see Holt Uncensored #134) - has now joined Bezos to galvanize members of Congress and Internet leaders in the creation of much-needed U.S. Patent Office reform.

My only problem is that the new partnership, and the patent reform ideas of Bezos, have little to do with the problems that O'Reilly and his 10,000 protestors brought up in an "Open Letter to Jeff Bezos" at http://www.oreilly.com/cgi-bin/amazon_patent.comments.pl last week. These problems could devastate the hopes of millions that the Internet remain free of domination by any growing entity.

In his letter, O'Reilly complained that the technology behind Amazon's 1-Click ordering and affiliates program had already been in existence or fell under the "obvious" category (meaning everybody would figure out the technology on their own sooner or later, so an exclusive patent wouldn't be warranted).

The technology Amazon.com now claimed as its own, O'Reilly said, had been donated to the Internet several years before, in keeping with the "open source" spirit of everyone working together for the advancement of all.

Just because the U.S. Patent Office granted Amazon.com patents "without adequate review" (O'Reilly is not alone in implying that the patent office is behind the times when it comes to Internet software) did not mean Amazon could blithely turn around and use the patents offensively as weapons against the competition, which it did with Barnes & Noble ( see http://news.cnet.com/category/0-1007-200-1476392.html ).

By "obtaining an injunction against Barnes & Noble's use of 1-click ordering," O'Reilly wrote to Bezos, "you are striking a blow against continued innovation in the medium that has proven so successful for you."

Bezos "got" the letter right between the eyes and now says he read at least 400 of the 10,000 signers, many of whom spoke of cutting off their purchases at Amazon.com. Bezos has now issued his own "Open Letter . . . on the Subject of Patents" at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/subst/misc/patents.html/103-0171762-300224 7 .

Here he worries that "the current rules governing business method and software patents could end up harming all of us," so he proposes some fundamental changes: Reduce the lifespan for business method and software patents from 17 to 3-5 years (to take place retroactively); allow a period for public comment before the patent number is issued; create a prior art database, which he, Bezos, has agreed to help fund.

So bravo: The coming together of two adversaries behind a common goal is very much in the spirit of openness and cooperation that has inspired the free flow of ideas on the Internet from the beginning.

But let's go back: If Bezos is worried about software patents that "could end up harming all of us," why doesn't he do what O'Reilly asked and "rescind his patent claims"? Why indeed doesn't Amazon.com drop the lawsuit against Barnes & Noble? (Gad! I can't believe I'm defending that reprehensible chain.)

Bezos does say that Amazon.com "will continue to be careful in how we use our patents," but that sounds as though a lawyer was more "careful" about the language of evasion. Further, stating that "patent law allows you to enforce a patent on a case-hyphen-by-case basis, only when there are important business reasons for doing so" sounds patronizing and dismissinve.

What are these reasons, one wonders, and how do they answer O'Reilly's concerns? In his response to Bezos' letter ( http://www.oreilly.com/ask_Tim/ ), O'Reilly says that since his talks with Bezos, he believes the patents are far more specific and "narrow" than he thought at first.

In this, he does not answer experts such as patent attorney Walter Linder of Faegre & Benson in Minneapolis, who told the Associated Press the Amazon.com patent affiliates was "pretty broad" and would threaten "a lot of websites," or CIBC World Markets analyst John Segrich, who threw up his hands in exasperation and said, "Are they [Amazon.com] going to patent air next?"

But O'Reilly does say this: " . . . the more I became convinced that Amazon's patents might actually hold more water as original inventions than I thought, the more I became convinced that they were still a bad idea."

He then hands the argument over to Lawrence Lessig, author of "Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace" (Basic; 297 pages; $30), who excoriates "business-method patents" as "the space debris of cyberspace" because they "give the holder a monopoly over a way of doing business that gets instantiated in technology" - and every method of doing business on the Internet "by definition is instantiated in technology - code."

Well, maybe Amazon.com has done it again. In previous months, whenever a dent has appeared in its dazzling image that might result in Wall Street disillusionment, the company has called a press conference, acquired a new subsidiary, announced the building of new warehouses, created zShops, and so forth, all of which deflected attention from existing criticism to generate new enthusiasm and potential money for the future.

Now, right at the edge of growing worries about privacy on the Internet (possibly violated by Amazon.com's zBubbles and other info-gobbling cookies), and domination of the Internet (possibly created by Amazon.com's software patents), let's do talk about the things that "could end up harming all of us," as Bezos says. But let's get down to business and talk about them all.

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LETTERS

Note: A number of readers have sent me the following letter from Rabbi Eric A. Silver to Barnes & Noble and have added that they're joining the Rabbi's boycott. I agree: It's not enough to call this a bookseller error; it's the kind of thing that rarely happens in independent bookstores and can be easily corrected when it does. That the situation requires a stern letter and talk of a boycott is distressing.

To: Barnes & Noble:

"The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" is an anti-Semitic forgery created to disparage Jews and to disseminate hatred. I was appalled to discover that you are listing the book on your Internet site under Judaica, and concurrently, carrying it in your stores under the same heading.

Since I am a believer in freedom of the press, I would question only your judgment in carrying the book at all, since it is a currilous, hate-mongering text. However, you do not have the right to carry it under the rubric of "Judaica" because that is what it manifestly is not. Would you carry a book written by the Ku Klux Klan purporting to be an African-American plot to take over the world as "Black Literature?"

In the name of honesty, I insist that you not participate in the misrepresentation of this book as "Judaica." Perhaps you should create a separate category called "hate-literature" or "propaganda" and carry it there with the disclaimer that the book is, in fact, a forgery. That in the name of honesty.

In the name of sheer decency, you should not carry the book at all. In the name of responsible business practices, you owe it to your customers to act immediately and unequivocally, and to cease being a partner in a fraudulent venture that has cost untold thousands of lives.

I will not patronize Barnes and Noble, its Internet site or its stores, until you do something to remedy this situation. I will do my level best to advise as many people as I can of the fact that you are carrying this scurrilous anti-Semitic tract and are misrepresenting it as "Judaica" rather than the hate-literature it is.

Rabbi Eric A. Silver Temple Beth David
Cheshire, Connecticut
EricSilver@aol.com

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

. . . It just might be high time to throw open for discussion that bastard child known as National Laydowns. [These are highly promoted books that are supposed to go on sale, be reviewed by the media and advertised on the same day.] I know that there are reasonable independent booksellers out there who say they love them, but come on, let's peek inside this insidious and stupid program that publishers use on occasion.

First of all, is it a benefit to Independents? I think not. The arguments for the use of NLs are threefold: 1) it focuses the marketing effort of the publisher; 2) it assures that all retailers start selling the books on the same day; 3) it keeps important editorial content from being scrutinized too soon by the media.

The first argument causes me to say "Huh? So What?" What the publisher is trying to do is create buzz. Buzz is really just a false interest foisted upon the public for the sole purpose of making money. Now we are all capitalists here, but this smacks of greed and dishonesty. If a publisher can consolidate sales into a short time frame, it can push a title onto the bestseller lists immediately, which, by their reckoning, generates more sales, ad nauseum. Great! We all make tons of money, eh? Well, customers don't care much about buying the first copy available. If they pick it up tomorrow that's fine, or maybe even next week. People don't really care about an on-sale date for any book. All they care about when they hear about a book they are interested in, is that it is available when they go to their bookstore.

The second argument seems fair at face value. However, it is a two-faced argument. I believe this one is driven by the chains. Everyone, everywhere gets it at the same time. However, it causes publishers to ship books out a week (and sometimes more) in advance. We have to NOT receive them and then SIT on them. We have little extra space for this nonsense. The real reason they ship them in advance, and then threaten us with dire consequences if we sell them early, is because the chains cannot receive them and get them onto the floor in a timely fashion. They need time to redistribute the books from their warehouses to their stores. This is inefficiency, plain and simple. So, a plus that independents have is removed in the guise of fairness. Yippee! The reasons that publishers use this method of NLs is because they cannot ship books to arrive nationwide all on the same day because of the vagaries of the shipping process (remember "Scarlet" or "Sex"?)

Also, usually the only indication that a title is a Laydown title is a stamp on the outside of a carton. Our least experienced employees are the ones who open incoming shipments. Publishers expect them to be responsible for such an important program to succeed? Markings on cartons are overlooked - every carton that comes in has several stickers and markings. Another aspect is that Independents quite often order fewer copies of a Laydown title than are in a carton. So the publisher uses one of their regular (unmarked) boxes and includes other titles which do not have a Laydown date. Who can tell?

Well then. Since publishers can't make the process work, they must force us to comply, or else. What a great partnership.

The third argument is just so much crap. What are the NL titles? "Death of Innocence", "Green Mile", "Brethren", "Suggestion of Death", "Hearts in Atlantis", "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town", "Granny Dan", "Roaring 2000's Investor", "On the Rez". Wow! These are some really important books. Editorial content, my foot. These are just popular titles that in a couple of years will be relegated to the dustbins of literary infamy (most of them anyway, there are always exceptions). Again, so what? In the long run, nobody really cares.

NLs do nothing to help the customer. They are solely for the self-interest of marketers and chain store monopolists.

Mark Burski
Chinook Bookshop
Colorado Springs, Colorado

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding the statement from ex-reader Craig Hokenson about Al Gore's "lies" ("how about Gore inventing the Internet, subject of 'Love Story,' etc, etc.?"), allow me to submit the following excerpts from an article regarding the "liberal" media's long-running penchant for misquoting, misidentifying, and willfully distorting Gore's comments, from the website http://www.consortiumnews.com , written and edited by investigative reporter Robert Parry.

Regarding Gore and "Love Story": "('Love Story') author Erich Segal (has) stated that the preppy hockey-playing male lead, Oliver Barrett IV, indeed was modeled after Gore and Gore's Harvard roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones. [NYT, Dec. 14, 1997]"

As to Gore "inventing" the Internet, a longer passage: "Gore's actual comment, in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer that aired on March 9, 1999, was as follows: 'During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.'

"Republicans quickly went to work on Gore's statement. In press releases, they noted that the precursor of the Internet, called ARPANET, existed in 1971, a half dozen years before Gore entered Congress. But ARPANET was a tiny networking of about 30 universities, a far cry from today's 'information superhighway,' ironically a phrase widely credited to Gore.

As the media clamor arose about Gore's supposed claim that he had invented the Internet, Gore's spokesman Chris Lehane tried to explain. He noted that Gore 'was the leader in Congress on the connections between data transmission and computing power, what we call information technology. And those efforts helped to create the Internet that we know today.' [AP, March 11, 1999]

There was no disputing Lehane's description of Gore's lead congressional role in developing today's Internet. But the media was off and running. Routinely, the reporters lopped off the introductory clause "during my service in the United States Congress" or simply jumped to word substitutions, asserting that Gore claimed that he "invented the Internet which carried the notion of a hands-on computer engineer."

Might I suggest Mr. Horkenson spend . . . a little more time... reading, perhaps?

Dave Abston
San Francisco, California