Confused about US Patents

I was just over on Slashdot where I learned that Amazon has been awarded a patent on an algorithm that uses a customer’s viewing history to generate recommendations for products. While I do like Amazon and have bought many things from them, as a developer these sort of patents scare me.

Unfortunately, where I work I don’t end up doing any sort of innovative or experimental work, there simply isn’t enough time for that in our project schedules. In my spare time however I like to keep my skills fresh by taking a problem and seeing if I can develop a solution for it, just to prove to myself that I can. I also keep these experiments around in case a potential employer is less than impressed by my relatively boring VB apps from my current job.

Now my concern is this, am I expected as an independant developer to research all the applicable patents in a certain problem domain before I proceed with these experiments? Am I liable if one of my solutions happens to be similar to one that has been patented by a corporation? In software there are so many completely correct ways to do the EXACT same thing that drawing a solution between one of my designs and somebody else’s is a difficult endeavour. In fact, as I sit here and write this I have thought of a couple of different ways one could achieve what Amazon just received a patent for, what if one of my ideas is similar to theirs?

Really in the end, I just want to know if I should be worried about some company coming after me for an experiment that I did for myself to prove my skills? I don’t plan on selling any of this stuff.

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