Mr. Bezos' patent notwithstanding, the fundamental relationship between an affiliate and a sponsor is as old as business itself.
Basically, anyone who is marketing something for you is your affiliate.
The problem with seeing this truth clearly relates to the large number of business relationships that would fall under such a vague category, and to the great subjectivity of the question.
When a retail grocer chooses a certain brand of corn from a certain wholesaler to place on his shelf, many factors may have influenced that decision — everything from price to stocking fees, to the fact that his daughter is married to the wholesaler.
But the customer usually is not aware of these complexities. They usually don't discover them until something goes wrong and they are looking for an accountable party.
Even when you know who manufactured it, who shipped it to the store and who sold it to you, it can prove surprisingly difficult to establish responsibility when there is a problem. Given no other way to convey a grievance or seek remedies, the consumer is forced to escalate and litigate.
It's no wonder that many merchants have been distancing themselves from accountability to the consumer. The liabilities of responsibility to the consumer have exceeded the benefits of keeping promises made.
In electronic commerce, this trust-void is occupied by affiliate networks, by webmasters and by a few third-party services and infrastructure providers. It is a murky place. To make matters worse, this murkiness is protected by those who are making billions in ways they don't want you to scrutinize.
If it were left up to these unscrupulous companies and individuals, the trust-void would grow murkier, and all of electronic commerce would suffer for it. In light of this important problem, the role of the affiliate becomes critical. Now that bloggers and other individual operators of websites are turning the Internet — essentially — into an advocacy medium, it's going to get really easy to carve out the rot.
All affiliates have to do is choose carefully whom they send their traffic to. Support the good, boycott the bad by taking down your links.
Jack Mardack is president of profitlabinc.com and corporate evangelist for Project Black Book.