Amazon's 'one-click' payment method too obvious to patent, European Patent Office rules

Out-Law News | 06 Jul 2011 | 1:34 pm | 2 min. read

A payment system devised by online retail giant Amazon is too obvious to patent, the European Patent Office (EPO) has ruled.

Amazon had hoped to patent the way its customers pay for products through the click of a single web page button. The company was previously granted patent rights to the payment system in the US.

An appeals board at the EPO ruled that the 'one-click' method was too obvious as it relied on existing inventions, called 'prior art' in patent law. Inventions must be new, take an inventive step that is not obvious and be useful to industry to qualify for patent protection.

The ruling backed the findings of a previous EPO examination into Amazon's application.

"The Board has reviewed the analysis of the features of [Amazon's patent claims] in the decision under appeal in the light of [Amazon's] arguments and agrees with the examining division that they lack inventive step," the EPO appeals board said in its ruling (23-page / 88KB PDF).

"The Board does not consider that the idea of reducing the number of steps necessary to make an order would contribute to inventive step," the EPO said.

Amazon lets registered users pay for products using a 'one-click' payment system. Customers who clicked the 'one click' order button have to have previously given payment and address details to the company and be logged in to the company's website for the system to work.

The EPO said Amazon's payment system relied on the exploitation of cookies. Cookies are small text files websites place on users' computers that remember users' activity on the site.

Amazon argued that its use of cookie technology was inventive because it meant customers' payment and address details would be automatically accessed when customers clicked the 'one-click' button to place an order. The company argued that this was a fast and secure way for customers to buy online.

Prior knowledge about what functions cookies could perform meant that Amazon's payment system was too obvious to patent, the EPO ruled.

"In view of the indexing function of cookies, the skilled person would have realised that any sensitive data traditionally requiring a login could be accessed by cookies," the EPO ruled.

"The obvious trade-off between the two processes, namely security vs. simplicity, cannot establish an inventive technical contribution," the EPO ruled.

"The invention was not a situation of a long felt want, but more an immediate application of this new [cookie prior art] as soon as it had become available in that field. In the Board's view, this outweighs the fact that the invention was subsequently very successful," the EPO ruled.

The EPO also ruled to reject Amazon's patent claims on a time-interval system the company had devised for 'one-click' purchases. The system allows customers to compile multiple single product orders made for the purposes of receiving only one delivery as long as the single orders are made within a certain period of time.

The European Patent Convention states that methods of business cannot be patented unless they solve a technical rather than administrative problem, but the EPO said that whilst the system may involve a technical solution it was too obvious to patent.

Amazon won the right to patent its 'one-click' payment system in the US last year. The company was forced to narrow the scope of the patent after objections by New Zealand actor Peter Calveley over the obviousness of the system. The US Patent and Trademarks Office rejected 21 of the 26 patent claims Amazon had originally submitted.

At the time Calveley said it that protecting the 'one-click' system from broader patent coverage would prevent more time-consuming systems being introduced by other companies.

"Despite the Amazon corporate spin permeating the web, the amendment of the claims was significant and opens the way to the use of one-click shopping in a wide range of settings, and would be very useful, for example in mobile devices where people do not want to wade through a shopping cart," Calveley said.

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