The world is finally starting to wake up to the situation that we’re living in where patents are being bought and sold en masse by huge technology companies for the single reason of either blocking the progress of their competitors (hello Apple and Microsoft), or to score some cash from a competitor with a lot of it (hello Yahoo!), or to use as defence ammunition (everybody). The real issue with patents lies in the US, because the EU and elsewhere at least does put some pretty stringent tests on the inventive step before registration – but the situation has got utterly out of hand.
Most recently Yahoo! noticed Facebook’s huge expected IPO valuation, and thought that suing over a few patents would be a good way to raise some cash to fill their rather empty coffers. This in turn has led to Facebook buying up a swathe of 750 software patents from IBM to use as ammunition to counter sue. Yahoo’s patents cover a number of things from ad-placement to news feeds – core sections of Facebook. Whilst Facebook’s newly acquired patent portfolio includes a way of showing user profiles and personalising stories to users. A large proportion of these patents would not have past the test in Europe – but that doesn’t matter because the lawyers on both sides are going to be enjoying champagne for years as a result of this fight which promises to take years to settle.
That is the whole problem really, the only beneficiary of the US style patent system are the lawyers who are attacking for and defending their companies on a daily basis. There seems little benefit to a system that lets you patent almost anything with others needing to challenge the validity in court if the patent should not have been granted in the first place. With the ability to patent software in the US, the whole thing gets into ridiculous territory when companies are patenting even the most basic of technological changes where there was little or no inventive step involved.
It isn’t just in the US where the patent system is being abused, however, with Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, and many many more also abusing the courts in Germany, Australia, China, South Korea, and just about every place where they might have some lawyers. Somehow over the past few decades we have lost the reason that patents were “invented” as a possibility, just as we have done with copyright (A story for another time) – patents are there to protect a company’s inventions from competitors for a limited time so that it is worth their time and money to invest in R&D. They were not designed to prevent another business from competing, and they certainly were not invented to be used as offensive weapons to bring out against competitors that have come into a lot of success and wealth. Patents are there to promote progress, not prevent it in competitors, and not to sue the successful.
The only winners in these intellectual property court cases are the lawyers, and I may be trained as one myself – but lawyers are not where progress is made and they really don’t need any financial aid.