Why Closed Platforms Might Not Be So Bad

This week at the Supernova conference in San Francisco, Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain continued his continued his summer crusade against closed platforms in the cloud, this time calling out Amazon for its earlier-2009 Kindle redos. And although his loose definition of cloud computing might annoy some, Zittrain’s comments are nonetheless relevant in the space because Amazon’s reactions to copyright claims might foretell how cloud providers, or any platform operators, approach similar situations.

Before we crucify Amazon for its text-to-speech faux pas, or the infamous “1984” incident, we need to consider analogous physical-world remedies to these issues. Assuming Amazon was violating copyright laws with text-to-speech, should it have waited for a lawsuit or a cease-and-desist letter, thus denying all users the text-to-speech capability? As it happened, the Kindle’s connectivity allowed Amazon to act proactively in making the feature optional for publishers and likely saving its existence in many cases.

And what about “1984”? Users’ copies were pirates, maybe even stolen goods, and there was going to be legal action of some type if Amazon didn’t preempt it. While it is rare, if not impossible, for authorities to track down possessors of pirated physical goods, the same isn’t true with digital files sold through a retail channel. The closest example might be illegal music downloads, and we know how that turned out for some downloaders.

If Amazon didn’t liaise with publishers and resolve these issues, the courts would have. So, were Amazon’s actions really that unpalatable?

If a SaaS or cloud provider were to face legitimate patent-infringement claims, would speaking with its accuser and changing the offering as necessary (with a cash settlement, no doubt) not be a better option than pursuing costly and potentially product-crippling litigation? One certainly could argue that affecting some users’ experiences by altering a particular feature or adding a royalty fee to its use is a better option than being forced to nix it altogether.

These new business models – from e-readers to search engines to SaaS — warrant few relevant comparisons with traditional models, and we should think long and hard before inferring that companies on the cutting edge of web business are necessarily acting unethically or illegally. It’s a brave new world (literary pun intended), where information about violations is readily available and the ability exists to resolve problems on the fly. It will take some time for providers to figure out how to address these new realities, and, unfortunately, early adopters might have to endure some growing pains. If they’re really upset, they can sue, or just vote with their feet.

Question of the week

What do you think of Amazon’s preemptive approach to resolving IP issues, and would they work in the cloud or SaaS worlds?
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