Many large tech companies file lots of patents each year and although
many, if not most, of them aren’t very interesting, every once in a
while somebody stumbles upon an interesting one.

Case in point: a pay-to-preview patent Amazon filed for in 2004 and which was granted earlier this week.

The patent, which has the official name ‘Method and apparatus to
facilitate online purchase of works using paid electronic previews’
describes a system “to facilitate variable pricing for electronically
viewing content online.
” Its potential application: enable Amazon to
charge consumers for access to previews of works it sells.

Interested in buying a book? Read Chapter 10, for $1. Amazon might
charge another consumer $2 to read a three page preview of a magazine.
The patent even provides for a method by which Amazon could apply the
fee paid for a preview towards the purchase of the previewed item. In short,
Amazon’s newly-granted patent would turn the company’s popular Search
Inside the Book feature into a monetization opportunity.

The patent explains the logic behind this:

Unfortunately, not all consumers appreciate the value of previewing
sample portions of a work before making a purchase. In particular, some
consumers are loath to pay for a work when they can view the work for
free. They may be tempted to avoid purchasing the work altogether by
simply viewing as much of the work as possible
electronically…Moreover, like other forms of marketing, allowing
viewers to electronically preview works in electronic form costs money.
Unless such marketing is shown to increase sales, electronic
booksellers may not be able to justify the cost of converting works
into an electronic form that may be previewed by consumers.

While it’s true that free previews come with a potential cost, it’s
worth pointing out that most consumers can walk into a book store and
preview to their heart’s content. Heck, in most cases there’s nothing
stopping a shopper from sitting down and reading an entire book in a
book store, many of which offer conveniences such as comfortable
seating and coffee. And let’s not even mention public libraries.

Fortunately, Amazon’s patent is just that — a patent. Many companies,
for a variety of reasons, file patents that are never put to use in the
real world. Given that Amazon originally filed this one in 2004 and has
done quite well for itself since then, one can only hope that
pay-to-preview was simply a bad idea that would be all but forgotten
had it not been memorialized at the USPTO.

At the same time, it’s a good thing that important companies like Amazon file patents like these, as they provide sometimes valuable insight
into the thinking taking place at these companies.
Even if they never intended to apply them, there’s a lot
that can be inferred from patents as to how companies perceive markets, consumer
behavior and where technology is headed. Now let’s just hope that the
USPTO doesn’t start charging to view these patents.