Several weeks ago Amazon Technologies, Inc., received United States Patent No. 7,831,439, titled System and method for converting gifts. This patent is the gift recipient’s dream come true. Presto-chango, the neon green neck tie, men’s speedo brief swim suit, the Albert Einstein Action Figure or even the belly burner weight loss belt are all gone as if by Harry Potter like magic! Yes consumers, fear not! Gone will be the days that you get unwanted gifts that don’t meet your needs, tastes or desires.
Amazon.com has figured out a way to prevent the sending and receiving of unwanted gifts, converting them into a gift that you really do want or a gift certificate. The invention even allows a gift recipient to place a standing conversion order. For example, let’s say you have a particular family member that always sends lame gifts. The patent refers to this person as “Aunt Mildred.” You could have a standing conversion order to change out any gift sent to you by Aunt Mildred, thereby allowing her to send you something, you to receive something you like and want, and the retailer not to have to process an exchange. Now if they could only do that with holiday fruitcakes, but I suppose some things are beyond the capabilities of modern technology.
According to the Background of the patent, “It sometimes occurs that gifts purchased on-line do not meet the needs or tastes of the gift recipient. For example, the recipient may already have the item and may not need another one of that same item.” Of course, the gift might not be appropriate because it is not the right size and so forth. Wouldn’t it be great if you could convert the gift to something else before it ever arrived? That is what Jeff Besos, co-inventor of the invention, thought. To allow them to give you the technological means to intercept that unwanted delivery before it ever even gets on its way and exchange it for another item, obtain a redemption coupon, a gift card, or even a gift certificate to be redeemed later.
Apparently, or at least according to the patent, “[t]he gift giving experience through network shopping services would be improved for both senders and recipients if enhanced systems and methods were provided for converting gifts.” That is probably true enough, although Aunt Mildred might have her feelings hurt once she figures out that the Novelty Yodeling Pickle and the Nose Shower Gel Dispenser weren’t exactly what you wanted this holiday season. Forget if you can, that the Yodeling Pickle is ranked #482 in Sports & Outdoor gifts and #3 in Noisemakers, and also forget that the Nose Shower Gel Dispenser is ranked #2 in Bathroom Dispensers, both of which strike me as particularly peculiar. I guess what this goes to show is that there is a REAL need for this gift exchange invention.
Of course, the extra added benefit from Amazon’s point of view is a reduction of the costs associated with returning unwanted gifts for credit. Sounds like a win-win scenario really, and you probably never really liked your Aunt Mildred anyway. I’m sure she is nice, but if she really thought you were going to like that handmade Barack Obama Chia Pet Planter, how well does she really know you anyway? For crying out loud, this Obama Chia Pet is ranked #249 in Health & Personal Care and #43 in the subcategory of Household Supplies. How exactly does a Barack Obama Chia Pet qualify as falling under Health & Personal Care? There obviously just isn’t a REAL need for this gift exchange invention, but a DESPERATE need for the invention!
Alright, I have had some fun so far, but so as to not rile up the anti-business method and anti-software patent crowd too much, or at least any more than is necessary, let me explain that this invention is not just comical. It does satisfy a particular need to enhance efficiencies on the part of the online retail vendor, and does embody real technology. At the core of the invention is the rules database called the gift conversion rules database. The patent explains:
The gift conversion rules database 136 stores information concerning rules for the gift conversion rules engine 120. The rules are useable by the rules engine 120 to determine whether a particular gift purchase should be converted into an alternative form, such as a gift certificate, different gift, gift card, etc. In an exemplary embodiment, the website system 104 may make the gift conversion rules engine 120 accessible to users, and users who expect to be recipients of gifts purchased on the website system 104 may create a set of (i.e., one or more) gift conversion rules to be stored in the database 136. That is, the users may be provided with the ability to configure rules for the rules engine 120. Each rule may specify one or more conditions which, if met, cause a gift conversion to be triggered. As will be described in greater detail below, the rules in database 136 may take into account any combination of the recipient’s purchase and gift history, the sender, the product and product features, product categories, value and timing of the gift, quantity, monetary (e.g., dollar) value, and/or any other pertinent information, in any combination. Rules may also be configured which cause the receipt of any gift to trigger a gift conversion, i.e., without regard to any particular conditions being met. Once it is determined that a gift conversion should be triggered, e.g., to a gift certificate, the gift certificate may be made payable to the gift recipient or to a third party, such as a friend, a relative, a charity, and so on. Additionally, the website system 104 may also be configured to convert gifts into other gifts in accordance with the rules specified by the user. Such conversions may include the conversion of a good to a service, a conversion of a service to a good, and so on. Additionally, various messaging may be performed to the recipient and/or to the sender, depending on how the rules in database 136 are configured. Herein, the term “gift certificate” is used to refer to any financial credit that is provided and that may be used for purchasing products, e.g., as a substitute for cash or credit. Gift certificates may include such things as gift cards, stored value cards, coupons that may be redeemed for value, account credits, and so on.
As with any software or business method invention that pertains to an online implementation or environment, the rules engine is critical. Many people will have good ideas about what can and should be done in an online retail or business environment, but an idea in and of itself, is not patentable. When you can articular the rules that will be used to implement the idea in its totality that is when you have crossed the threshold and have moved from idea to invention. So while some are likely wanting to poke fun at this invention based on the description so far, there is far more to the invention. What if the user didn’t sign up? What if the sender misspelled the recipients name? The reason computer programmers have so many problems with software inventions and in actually writing code to implement an invention is because they fail to look at things as an engineering problem and take into consideration contingencies. Whatever can go wrong will go wrong and much of a software innovation resides in handling the variety of things that can go wrong. Computer programmers far too often code as if everything will be done right from the start by end users, which is comical really when you think about it.
In any event, the patent explains how certain algorithms will be used to find the recipient and engage the conversion:
After the gift order from the sender is received (step 202), the website system 104 proceeds with identifying the recipient of the gift (step 204). The recipient may be identified, for example, by matching information provided by the sender with other information stored in the visitor database 132. For example, when configuring rules for the rules database 136, users may be asked to register with the website system 104 and provide name and address information (i.e., if the user is not already a registered user). The recipient may then be recognized by comparing the name and shipping address of the recipient as provided by the sender with the names and addresses of users in the visitor database 132. Matching algorithms may be used which take into account variations in spelling, formatting, nicknames, and the like. In another embodiment, a unification database may be maintained that reconciles different representations of the same underlying user data. In another embodiment, the recipient may be identified based on other actions of the sender, e.g., the sender has searched for and located the wish list of the recipient, and is sending a gift from the recipient’s wish list. In another embodiment, if the set of possible matches can only be narrowed down to a reasonably small number, the sender may be provided with the option to make the final selection. For example, if no exact address match exists, the sender may be provided with the city of residence of various possible matches and with the option of making a final selection. As will be appreciated, various opt-in and/or opt-out arrangements may be used that enable users to opt in or opt out of the system 100 in order to protect their privacy.
The invention also has implications for charitable giving as well. The patent talks about how the innovation can be used by schools who need textbooks. For example, the user may be a school which has indicated to prospective donors that it would like to receive 5th grade math textbooks. When an order is received for a gift for the user, the rules engine can determine the aggregate quantity of math textbooks already received. If more than the specified number of math textbooks has already been received any additional donations are converted to a gift certificate, or could be converted to another gift, such as 6th grade math textbooks. Another example of a charity wishing to receive a certain number of hats is discussed in the patent. Once the requested number of hats is received, gifts could be converted from hats to mittens.
But what about the situation where the sender may not want their gift converted? Let’s say Aunt Mildred really wants to send you that Tickle Me Freud Plush Doll, and she doesn’t want you to be able to convert it to something you might actually want to receive. The patent has that figured out as well:
Decisions as to whether a gift should be converted may be made depending on the joint outcome of the rules configured by the sender and the rules configured by the recipient. As will be appreciated, various priorities may be configured to address the situation in which there is a conflict between the sender rules and the recipient rules in the context of a particular gift. Such priorities may be system-specified and/or user configurable and may be specified on either a global basis or on a rule-by-rule basis (e.g., depending on the conditions specified in the rule). For example, as a default, a system-specified priority rule may dictate that any conflicts should be resolved in favor of the sender. However, the sender may specify that any conflicts should be resolved in favor of the recipient. In such an instance, the default rule is not used and the sender-specified rule is used instead, thereby causing any conflicts to be resolved in favor of the recipient. As will be appreciated, various other permutations and combinations of priorities may be configured for resolving conflicts between the sender rules and the recipient rules.
Hopefully this has made you laugh, gotten you to realize there are some truly bizarre gifts available through Amazon.com and the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness might be better preserved by an invention that allows the conversion of lame gifts into something you might actually want. While Amazon.com doesn’t seem to have contemplated how to handle the unwanted pineapple upside down cake that has been re-gifted for nearly a generation within your family, the patent is a good example of the level of detail and forward thinking that needs to take place in order to convert a raw idea into a patentable invention. The devil is in the details!- - - - - - - - - -
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About the Author
Gene Quinn is a Patent Attorney and the founder of the popular blog IPWatchdog.com, which has for three of the last four years (i.e., 2010, 2012 and 2103) been recognized as the top intellectual property blog by the American Bar Association. He is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course. As an electrical engineer with a computer engineering focus his specialty is electronic and computer devices, Internet applications, software and business methods.