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Federal Court OKs Amazon's System of Suggesting Alternative Products 102

Posted by timothy
from the if-you-don't-like-that-you'll-really-hate-this dept.
concealment writes "Many of us have had the experience of going to Amazon to buy one thing but checking out with a huge shopping cart of items that we didn't initially seek—or even know were available. Amazon's merchandising often benefits Amazon's customers, but trademark owners who lose sales to their competition due to it aren't as thrilled. Fortunately for Amazon, a California federal court recently upheld Amazon's merchandising practices in its internal search results."
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Federal Court OKs Amazon's System of Suggesting Alternative Products

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  • cry some more (Score:5, Insightful)

    by X0563511 (793323) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @01:06PM (#43016217) Homepage Journal

    Seriously, cry some more.

    Or you could actually put effort into selling a better product for competitive pricing and stop bitching that people don't choose you when they get a view of better alternatives.

  • Truly sad (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Ravensfire (209905) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @01:11PM (#43016283) Homepage

    Go to a store and you'll generally see competing products next to each other and that's okay. But try to do something similar on-line? Horror! Unfair! Must file lawsuit! It's become our culture but the practice of suing for anything and everything has become utterly ridiculous in the last decade or so.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      actually, some companies place restriction on display windows, which in my opinion is very anti-competitive. For example, if a sunglass-maker wants prominent display, they will give you (the store owner) a discount for that premium. Then let that run for a few quarters. Then they may request that all other sunglasses be removed or they will stop the "special" discount - but use other softer terms. If the owner doesn't comply, the manufacturer may go as far as refusing to sell the sunglasses altogether. It's

      • by Rich0 (548339)

        Yup, common practice, and also highly anti-competitive.

        If I were dictator I'd ban exclusive agreements of any kind. If you want to sell more data plans then have the best data plan, not an exclusive agreement so that in order to buy the phone you want you have to buy a data plan you don't want.

    • Re:Truly sad (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Osiris Ani (230116) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @01:23PM (#43016423)

      Go to a store and you'll generally see competing products next to each other and that's okay. But try to do something similar on-line?

      ...writes the person who clearly didn't read the article. I say that because if you did, you'd know that the products in question quite specifically aren't actually available on Amazon.com.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        True. The court case is even worse.

        This is like Smuckers refusing to sell jam to a brick and mortar, and then suing the brick and mortar because when customers go looking for Smuckers they instead find a shelf full of other jams.

      • by Joehonkie (665142)
        Right, so like going to a store and asking for a product that they don't have and being directed to similar products. As mentioned in the case and equally insane.
        • Right, so like going to a store and asking for a product that they don't have and being directed to similar products. As mentioned in the case and equally insane.

          Oh, I'm fully supportive of Amazon's business model, and believe that the lawsuit had no merit; the judge should have hurled the gavel into the general direction of the plaintiff's lawyers heads. It's simply quite wearisome to watch people comment on things they haven't made the most basic effort to understand.

          (I know full well that the response to that should be "welcome to Slashdot.")

      • by BryanL (93656)

        A better analogy would be, if I walk into a hardware store asking for Tiffany lamps and the floor worker pointed to the the lighting aisle and said, "All of our lighting products are right there." Could Tiffany sue because there were no Tiffany lamps in the store?

    • by wbr1 (2538558)

      Go to a store and you'll generally see competing products next to each other and that's okay. But try to do something similar on-line? Horror! Unfair! Must file lawsuit! It's become our culture but the practice of suing for anything and everything has become utterly ridiculous in the last decade or so.

      This... products are SUPPOSED to compete in a capitalist system. If you cannot survive competition then you should either improve or get out of the way. When I go to Walmart, competing products are within view at all times. When I go to a grocery store, pepsi is beside coke, Coors is near the Bud. I -like- seeing what my options are.

      • by femtobyte (710429)

        When I go to Walmart, competing products are within view at all times.

        Or, in many cases, a bunch of products all produced in the same factory for one mega-holdings-conglomerate are displayed in different colored boxes with different brand names and prices to provide the illusion of choice (and make you feel so smart for buying the $7.99 detergent, because that *must* be a great deal when other detergents are selling for up to $18.99). Proctor & Gamble figured out this scam decades ago, and now it's commonplace. You're very unlikely to see *actual* competition from anyone

      • by gstoddart (321705)

        This... products are SUPPOSED to compete in a capitalist system. If you cannot survive competition then you should either improve or get out of the way.

        No, this is the new capitalism where patents, copyright, trademarks, and the government protect your business model -- and you use lawyers to make sure you stay profitable.

      • by chrismcb (983081)
        It is a poorly written article, especially since the summary and the leading paragraph really have nothing to do with the actual court case.
        See the product isn't ACTUALLY competing, as the user is never given the choice to see the product, ONLY the product's competitors. I understand where the merchant is coming from, but I agree with the court here. If the merchant feels they are losing to their competitor, perhaps they should work a deal with Amazon to sell their product?
        This is like going to a restau
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Go to a store and you'll generally see competing products next to each other and that's okay. But try to do something similar on-line? Horror! Unfair! Must file lawsuit! It's become our culture but the practice of suing for anything and everything has become utterly ridiculous in the last decade or so.

      From the sound of TFA, it's even more baffling than that.

      1) Watch maker tightly controls who can sell their products, and for whatever reason Amazon isn't on that list.
      2) People go to Amazon, and search for one of these specific watches. Amazon can't sell them, so it suggests alternatives instead.
      3) Watch maker tries to argue that Amazon is selling competing products under their trademark name.

      So it's not even a case of comparing products against each other, it's suggesting an alternative when the consumer

      • by mk1004 (2488060)
        Yep, the watchmaker limits their resellers to engender a sense of exclusivity with its customers, then sues when potential customers looking at (online) stores not carrying their brand convince some of those customers into buying a competing product. Doh!
      • by Anonymous Coward

        It's more amusing than that, during step 2, it's likely that Amazon doesn't know anything about the watch maker's trademark/product, but enough people search for their trademark and the word 'watch' that searches for just their trademark suggest the related search for their trademark and watch, and additionally, of those people who did such a search and bought something, enough of them buy watches that us humans would classify as "competitors" that the first page of results for the 'mark plus watches ends u

  • Stores have been doing this for years. Go in looking for one thing and other brands or items are placed prominently to catch your eye. If you want a better shelf location, you pay the retailer for it.

    If you don't like Amazon (or other on-line vendors) from switching "your" customers to their preferred partners, build your own storefront web site. Amazon is the price you pay for getting your stuff up on the web without having to do development work yourself.

    • Re:Brick and Mortar (Score:5, Informative)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @01:18PM (#43016381) Journal

      In this case, the trademark holder was actively blocking sale of their product on Amazon and then suing Amazon for suggesting similar products that they did have in stock...

      The audacity is jaw-dropping.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by rsborg (111459)

        In this case, the trademark holder was actively blocking sale of their product on Amazon and then suing Amazon for suggesting similar products that they did have in stock...

        The audacity is jaw-dropping.

        To me it isn't. Can you go into a retail store and see a sign that says "Apple products" with nothing underneath them, and then a big arrow pointing to Samsung, HP, Acer tablets and laptops? That's the assertion here is that you can't use the word "Apple" with bupkis there. I'm pretty sure I've never seen that done - and probably because it's been litigated away by manufacturers and trademark holders.

        This is essentially what Amazon is doing by routing searches to competitor's products. Arguably with the

        • by Obfuscant (592200)

          To me it isn't. Can you go into a retail store and see a sign that says "Apple products" with nothing underneath them, and then a big arrow pointing to Samsung,

          Amazon didn't have a sign saying "MTM Special Ops" with an arrow pointing to something else. The website visitor TYPED IN THAT STRING, and Amazon's search engine shows the search string and the results. It's a typical search engine, in that it doesn't even care if all the words match. My search returned not only watches. The "ops" matched a Luminox watch based on "ops" in the name as top result, which then gave the search engine the hint that I was looking for watches that matched that description. I also

        • by bws111 (1216812)

          Maybe you could show us the 'sign' that Amazon has that says 'MTM Products'.

        • by idontgno (624372)

          If you're going to make a brick-and-mortar analogy, at least try to get the basic facts right.

          Walk into a retail store and ask for an Apple computer. The clerk responds "We don't carry Apple... we have HPs, Samsungs, Acers, etc. over there."

          And then Apple sues because the store has the audacity to NOT SEND CUSTOMERS OUT THE DOOR.

        • by Firethorn (177587)

          To me it isn't. Can you go into a retail store and see a sign that says "Apple products" with nothing underneath them, and then a big arrow pointing to Samsung, HP, Acer tablets and laptops? That's the assertion here is that you can't use the word "Apple" with bupkis there. I'm pretty sure I've never seen that done - and probably because it's been litigated away by manufacturers and trademark holders.

          Bad analogy-It's more like I walk into said retail store and ask an employee "Where do you have your apple laptops" and getting back "Sorry, we don't have apples; but our laptops are over there".

          In the article it shows what happens.
          1. The user searches for a "MTM special ops" watches.
          2. Amazon's search engine doesn't find the MTM watches because MTM doesn't allow amazon to sell them.
          3. The search engine automatically loosens the search - removing the quotes restricting it to "mtm special ops", so now it'

        • by chrismcb (983081)
          You can go to a retail store and ask if they have "Apple products" They'll say 'No, but would you like to buy this Surface instead?" it happens all the time. Go to a restaurant and ask for a "pepsi' or a "cocacola" (whichever they don't have) and see what happens. If they offer the competing product, are they in the wrong?
      • Does anyone consider the actions of the legal professionals representing the trademark holder ethical conduct? Should we have stronger rules for deciding what does and does not constitute ethical conduct for legal professionals?

    • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdot@@@hackish...org> on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @01:23PM (#43016429)

      The court noted that in its decision, in a nicely clueful bit of reasoning. They pointed out that it's much like, when asking for Coke at a restaurant that doesn't carry Coke, it is not infringing for the restaurant to offer you Pepsi-Cola or RC Cola as (correctly labeled) alternatives.

  • I'm so glad Amazon got permission from a Federal Court to engage in commerce. How did this case even make it to Federal Court?
    • by Trepidity (597)

      Well, it ended up in court because someone filed a lawsuit, formatted their briefs correctly, and paid a filing fee. It was in federal court because it was a claim under federal trademark law. The plaintiff did not, however, actually win.

  • Why legislation? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CaptainNerdCave (982411) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @01:18PM (#43016365)

    I really don't understand why the legal system needs to be bothered to deal with this. My tax dollars have better things to do than get wasted deciding "It's acceptable to display multiple products in one place."

    If the argument is from $company that "They searched for my expensive product, but bought a cheaper alternative instead! We demand that they not see other items!", then it seems obvious that these people have never shopped anywhere, ever. Generic acetaminophen is sitting right next to Tylenol, but how often does Tylenol lobby to make that illegal?

    If anything, the more expensive product company marketing goons need to realize that places like Amazon are doing them a favor because the opposite happens too. A cheap coffee-maker has two stars, but something 50% more expensive has 4.5, so people look to see why it's reviewed so much higher. I know I do.

    Peer-reviews have helped many people avoid buying garbage unwittingly, and steered many people to something better suited to their needs.

    • by frinkster (149158)

      I really don't understand why the legal system needs to be bothered to deal with this. My tax dollars have better things to do...

      There must be some sort of controversy involved. If you file a lawsuit, you must state specifically what the other side is doing wrong, with citations to the relevant laws that prove that such action is wrong. Anything less and the court will sanction you for wasting their time as well as the other side's time.

      In this particular case, the shopper is asking Amazon for products made by company A using words which in that particular context and combination form trademarks and/or copyrights owned by company A

      • by Rich0 (548339)

        The only reason anybody can make this argument is because it is an algorithm.

        If I walk into a bar and ask for a particular brand of beer, and they don't sell it, then the bartender is going to suggest something they feel is similar. If I walk into a Honda dealer and ask to see a Camry, are they going to just tell you to go to the Toyota dealer, or are they going to suggest that I might be interested in an Accord?

        • by Obfuscant (592200)

          If I walk into a Honda dealer and ask to see a Camry, are they going to just tell you to go to the Toyota dealer, or are they going to suggest that I might be interested in an Accord?

          Once, a very long time ago, I walked into a fast food joint and asked for "An All American Meal". This was when that phrase was a trademark for one of the major chains. I, of course, was in the wrong chain. They promptly escorted me out the door and warned me not to use those words on their property again. An eavesdropping lawyer notified the correct chain and I was sued in federal court for trademark infringement and fraud. I'm now penniless and destitute.

          No, of course not. They sold me their version of

    • by Anonymous Coward

      You are absolutely right, but the case is a little more subtle than Tylenol/acetaminophen.

      The company bringing suit (MTM) sells very specific Special Forces-style watches. They have no products listed on Amazon.

      But when an Amazon customer searches for their products by "MTM watch", Amazon presents competing Special Forces-style watches. This is only possible because Amazon is keeping a record of MTM's trademarked name in their database, and knows what kinds of watches are associated with that mark.

      The jud

      • by mk1004 (2488060)
        Actually, Amazon does not state that the search results are not MTM watches. But only a moron user would be confused by that omission, and apparently the court thinks so too.
      • This is only possible because Amazon is keeping a record of MTM's trademarked name in their database, and knows what kinds of watches are associated with that mark.

        More likely, Amazon just keeps a record of search queries that users have entered that did not result in exact matches, associated with other search queries and/or products that were viewed immediately after. In other words, the usual "people who viewed this have also liked" feature, just extended to search results.

    • by MitchDev (2526834)

      "Generic acetaminophen is sitting right next to Tylenol, but how often does Tylenol lobby to make that illegal?"

      And the odds are good that the Generic stuff is the exact same formula as the Tylenol, and is made and bottled and packaged by the maker of Tylenol and the Tylenol costs the same to make, but people are awed by the big famous brand name "TYLENOL" and pay 2-3 times as much for the exact same thing...

    • by chrismcb (983081)

      I really don't understand why the legal system needs to be bothered to deal with this.

      Because an American company (along with American workers) felt they were being taken advantage of. If you had a problem, and you felt you were in the right, don't you think you should "have your day in court?" But I bet a bunch of other Americans probably feel "why is my tax dollars paying for this yahoos lawsuit?"
      This lawsuit wasn't exactly frivolous. Yes it seems to be common sense, but until something like this is tested in court, it is difficult to say. That is what the court system is for.

  • by SolitaryMan (538416) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @01:25PM (#43016463) Homepage Journal

    Many of us have had the experience of going to Amazon to buy one thing but checking out with a huge shopping cart of items that we didn't initially seek—or even know were available.

    Honestly, no idea what are you talking about. I only see ads for the stuff I JUST BOUGHT from them. Which I find pretty funny and stupid.

    • by chrismcb (983081)

      Honestly, no idea what are you talking about. I only see ads...

      So I take it you don't actually use Amazon? These aren't ads. Go to any item on Amazon.
      You'll usually find a "frequently bought together" and a "customers who bought this item also bought"
      Or better yet, do a search... ANY search. Amazon will return a list of products (not ads, products) that are related to your search in some way. Some of the items will be items you probably wouldn't expect to show up in the search.
      None of these things are ads, not sure why you think ads are involved.

  • I of course look for technical things and get marketing results.

    When I type in "Bluetooth Keyboard" I want a stupid Bluetooth Keyboard that operates on the Bluetooth Protocol and does not require that I plug an extra dongle into my machine. I do not want to be offered a single Bluetooth Keyboard followed by a dozen Logitech and Microsoft wireless keyboards where when I hit Ctrl+F the term bluetooth isn't even on the page!

    Try going through the games section without even touching your keyboard to type and cl

  • but really? Why was this even a lawsuit?

    and as for "Many of us have had the experience of going to Amazon to buy one thing but checking out with a huge shopping cart of items that we didn't initially seek"
    Never done that. I go find what I want order it. Other things that might be interest might go on the Wih List, but never gone in for one thing and got a ton more at the same time.

    Sounds like really really poor impulse control issues...

  • I find it really funny that Amazon is patenting their suggestion system since it's responsable for nearly every mis-purchased item I buy from Amazon. I wind up with GSM phones intead of CDMA (but in a better color), asus keyboards for a laptop I don't own, and a wireless access point instead of a wireless range extender! They should try to think of/patent a system for suggesting items that have the same important attributes and basic utility. It wouldn't kill Amazon to patent something that's not blaitantl
    • by Lithdren (605362) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @03:24PM (#43017865)

      Or you could read the product descriptions before clicking the 1-click purchase button and save yourself a lot of headache. ...oh shit, thats why they patented that!

    • I've made a lot of Amazon purchases over the last 2 years, and quite a few of them were from their suggestion system. Not once I had the problems that you describe. Do you even read the descriptions of items that you buy? If not, then it's a classic case of PEBKAC, and you should be ashamed of even mentioning this kind of thing in public.

  • I don't know if it was a case of "if you can't beat them join them" but when I searched for "MTM watch" on Amazon there was a sponsored link by the plaintiff on a resulting page. So they appear to be paying Amazon ( directly or indirectly ) when someone searches there to give them a link back.

  • That explains it - MBAs. Here, I just thought their programmers were too incompetent to write a decent search algorithm. If the algorithm is designed for max profit rather than user results, I change my opinion from lousy to sleezy.

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