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Amazon Fresh truck Seattle deliveryA few days ago I brought up a patent Amazon got on reselling “used” digital content. It turns out that’s not the only odd patent Amazon’s gotten lately. Dan brought to my attention U.S. patent number 8,370,271, which Amazon just received on “recurring delivery of products.” Essentially, Amazon just received a patent on the ability to ship a new order of a particular good every so often to a customer without being asked. Or, as one pundit put it, Amazon has just “patented the milkman.”

Amazon has already been offering this service for some time now. If you order some sort of consumable product, like a box of 264 Stōk Black Coffee shots, Amazon will ask if you’d like to “subscribe” to it, and receive a new shipment every month. The company applied for the patent in November, 2009, so it’s clearly been on Amazon’s mind for a while. The company does sell a lot of grocery and consumable products, and is always adding more.

The thing is, what is so special about this idea? Even Amazon admits that other merchants may have recurring ordering systems in place already. “However, these systems may be limited in their flexibility for allowing modifications of the recurring orders or for allowing the addition of one-time or specialty products to an order. Further, the customer may not be able to schedule the recurring orders for the same time and day of each week or month, thereby making it difficult for the customer to arrange to be present at the delivery of perishable goods or other consumables,” Amazon explains.

So apparently Amazon is patenting the ability to make fiddly little adjustments to your recurring orders. But again, what’s so special about that? This is how many businesses have already operated for years, with the sole exception that they did their ordering offline. The patent office has been willing to grant a lot of “just like something you do in real life, but doing it on-line” patents over the years, and the courts have become increasingly willing to throw them out. Will the same thing happen to this patent, I wonder?

Of course, the current patent system is fundamentally messed up. It may be that companies such as Amazon feel the need to patent everything they can, even obvious things, just so someone else doesn’t patent it and use it against them. But maybe they also mean to use it to quash competitors. If so, however, I have a hard time seeing any patent court taking it seriously. But I could be mistaken.

Interestingly enough, this is actually the second patent (that I know of) that Amazon has received on recurring product delivery. They got another one (US patent no 8,126,724) nearly a year ago covering another method of recurring delivery. This one is at least a bit more novel—it covers Amazon trying to guess when someone will have used up a consumable product (such as shaving cream) in order to know when to send him another batch, taking into account the customer’s purchase history, known average uses per day of given products, and so forth. I could see something like that being a bit more worthy of a patent than just a mechanism for sending a customer a gallon of milk every week.

 
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