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.

Patricio Robles

Published 24 September, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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