Patently Unfair | November 3, 2006
In a current British car campaign, the advert proudly exclaims that the manufacturer filed for 9,621 patents during the development of it’s latest gas guzzler, while NASA has only filed 6,509. The intention here is clear. The car manufacturer is trying to claim that the filing of patents is evidence that their engineers are more innovative that the worlds best rocket scientists. This works because the majority of people still assume that patents relate to complicated innovations that take yeas to perfect. Sadly this couldn’t be further from the case.
The purpose of patents is a good one–to protect the time and efforts companies put into research and development in order to create new innovations. However when you look at some recent patents you realise they are often vaguely worded descriptions or badly drawn sketches used to describe obvious, and sometimes pre-existing, concepts. Rather than protecting the commercial cost of innovation, patents are actually doing the exact opposite. Being used a way to extract levies off other companies for their hard work and effort.
A classic example is Amazon and their one-click patent. Many companies are now forced to pay Amazon a licence fee just to be able to use the concept of one-click payment. Then there is the GIF file format, which allowed Unisys to tax graphic design packages for many years. And any article on ridiculous patents wouldn’t be complete without mention of British Telecom’s ludicrous claim over the hyperlink.
In a glorious case of “the shoe being on the other foot”, a couple of weeks ago IBM announced they were going to sue Amazon for patent infringement. It seems that IBM own patents for “Presenting Applications in an Interactive Service”, “Storing Data in an Interactive Network”, “Presenting Advertising in an Interactive Service” and “Ordering Items Using an Electronic Catalogue”. In a beautiful demonstration of doublespeak, IBM’s senior VP for technology is quoted as saying “When someone takes our property… we have no option but to protect it through every means available to us”.
Rather than companies spending money coming up with new innovations, and then bringing those innovations to market, it seems that companies are filing more and more patents with the sole purpose of extracting licensing revenue from unsuspecting companies. This seems to be in exact opposition to the original point of patents.
If the worlds courts wanted to do something about this, they could. By limiting legal pay outs to a multiple of the effort spent coming up with the patent, you could protect the work and effort that goes into real innovation, while at the same time making spurious legal cases completely redundant. For instance if somebody infringed the patent on a new drug that cost the manufacturer $10 million to produce, you could claim compensation of $100 million. However if you spent half an hour one rainy Sunday morning deciding to patent the idea of “Presenting Advertising in an Interactive Service” then I think a days wages is all you should receive in return. After all, the value isn’t in the idea, it’s in the successful implementation.
Sadly this isn’t the case and as time goes on, the disturbing misuse of patents is only going to increase. I worry that one day, if you want to set up a website of any kind, you’ll be forced to pay a percentage of all your income to an industry body like the BMI, set up solely to collect payments for spurious patent infringement on behalf of a few large corporations.
Posted at November 3, 2006 12:48 AM