The legislation in place to protect patents seems to have been around since Noah invented bulk livestock carriers. But it hasn’t provided safe harbour since the great ship of modern technology let slip her moorings on the day the music of the rotary-dial telephone died.
Critical junctures such as this one tend to happen cyclically over the eons. Mankind usually trims the sails to manage the winds of change but in this instance there is gale force resistance to changing tack. Historical lessons that prove the benefit of pulling together rather than standing apart are forgotten. Nobody remembers how the Wright brothers destroyed their reputations by defending their patent for aircraft flight control until the American government had to step in to allow the allied air forces equip themselves for World War 1. There are sparks of enlightenment here and there but few are aware that that the increased efficiency of the modern internal combustion engine is due largely to combined research and development between almost all the major car manufacturers (e.g. Ford’s small award-winning diesel engines are a product of Ford Germany/Peugeot/Citroen research and design, manufactured at the Volvo engine plant in Sweden and also used in BMWs Mini Cooper D). Some sharing of environmentally green innovation is practiced by energy firms through The Eco-Patent Commons where some environmentally friendly products are made available royalty-free. So-called ‘Patent Pools’ have been formed for projects from the DVD entertainment system to the pharmaceutical companies working together to provide HIV/AIDS medication to undeveloped countries. But this is not enough and it is high time that the whole concept of owning ideas is overhauled. The biggest obstacle to this is the failure of rights-holders to see reform as a benefit and an opportunity. None screamed louder than the music industry on the threats of the world wide web yet those very entities have since flourished in the very marketplace that they feared would bring about their downfall.
The reluctance of industry in general to follow the creative evolution of the anthropological brainscape stems not only from inventors but also from a breed of animal that did not show up on Noah’s manifest – the patent buyer/investor/speculator who knows more about protecting his property by peeing on its boundary than about lawfully protecting original ideas. These individuals and corporate entities go so far as to buy ailing corporate dinosaurs purely because they are patent-heavy from years of laboratory breeding.
Patent Trolls are the type of person a mother wants her offspring to marry for financial security. In a work environment that need only extend to some few hours per year, yet achieving the most impressive return per minute earned on this planet since Einstein quit his day job, a Patent Troll spots a company infringing a patent, buys the affected patent then sues the company for thieving their intellectual property (this business model is so crafty it deserves its own patent). They normally accept a cash settlement but are liberal in letting loose the lawyers when circumstances require. These Machiavellian bottom-feeders are applauded for their business acumen and reward themselves with exotic models (some of which can be cars) and are much sought after for Rotary Club membership.
The Trolls are of a gene pool which is also common to some feral mutants that stowed away in Noah’s lifeboats, such as the American corporate beast named Nuance. Vlingo was a voice recognition company working with Apple to develop Siri. Nuance, a competitor of Vlingo, was upset that they weren’t picked by Apple and set out to inveigle their way onto the Siri contract. Firstly and frivolously they sued Vlingo for infringing one of their patents. As expected, they lost the case because their claim was pure fiction but by then Apple had distanced itself from Vlingo because of the bad smell and eventually hired the only other real contender – you guessed it – Nuance. This is called pro-active salesmanship and causes outbreaks of stratospheric bonus payments and the envy of one’s peers.
In its largest acquisition ever, Google recently bought Motorola for US$13b. happily paying a premium of 63% per share. Google co-founder Larry Paige admitted that the deal was done to get their hands on the inventory of patents accumulated by Motorola since its inception back in the year before The Great Depression (yes, that one). Thing is, Google didn’t want to use the patents – they just wanted to own them to prevent themselves from being sued for breach of same. Larry paid thirteen billion to sleep easy at night. He may yet patent this new sleep-enhancing procedure. He might also consider patenting his new method of bidding at auctions: he recently bid Pi and other mathematical constants at an auction of wireless patents by Nortel Networks (he lost to the consortium of Apple, Microsoft, RIM, EMC, Ericsson and Sony who bid an ordinary $4.5b. for the 6000 patents.)
I won’t even start on the current smartphone/tablet dog/cat-fights because these are already being reported in quantities that have relegated the sports pages to number two spot behind the technology section of my daily newspaper.
My position on patents has been long held but this current tirade was prompted by yesterday’s request from a friend to help put the Microsoft Outlook Mail App on her new Samsung Galaxy SII 4G Smartphone. Within mere minutes of initiating this seemingly simple process I felt compelled to scream and otherwise caterwaul like Wile E. Coyote treading air (has this writer just infringed a Warner Bros. patent?)
To carry out the simple operation the manufacturer of the phone insisted that the phone’s default email address be a Gmail one in order to download said App and no, Microsoft cannot give it to you directly because only Google can put an App on a Samsung phone because that patently abused (and abusing) Korean corporate colossus uses the Apple-busting Android system which is owned by the aforementioned internet search giant, Google. Geddit? So while my friend took to my iPad to apply for the necessary Gmail account, I had to do a factory reset on her phone to get rid of the Windows Outlook email address configured at setup (the one she needed the App in question to use, if you’re still with me) because this is the only way that a default email address could be deleted from this Android phone in order to render the device sterilised of offending foreign intelligence.
Only then were we allowed to download the Microsoft Outlook Mail App. The time that it took this Bada-gen geek-wannabe to figure all this out in the first place, then carry out each patented step over the glitchy Optus network serving a rural Gippsland town with a communications tower built before The Flood (The Great Gippsland Flood, that is) necessitated one trip to the local pizza take-away for sustenance and several more to the liquor shop for perseverance, until what started as a favour for a friend over a sunny afternoon tea ended with the quasi-romantic dimness of the sun’s dying rays reflecting off the radishes in the Koo Wee Rup Swamp.
Sony, the once proud patent-holder of the Betamax video recording system, is approaching its personal fiscal cliff because nobody wants to share their patented technology with this former King of the Jungle who has captained its particular boat since the aforementioned Ark Age. Nokia has just dipped its sexy Scandinavian toe into the smartphone water and must be holding its breath for the anticipated tsunami of lawsuits for having miraculously made the world’s smartest-smartphone-ever without inventing a single component. Samsung, Google, Android, Gmail, Microsoft, Oracle et al own uncountable patents between them but one has to wonder what percentage of these are owned for their insurance and/or investment value, against the proportion that will benefit mankind through the genius of human inventiveness.
Existing patent laws are anachronous. They restrain ideas that should be benefitting this world and need urgent review before they stymie human development. In the meantime I call upon certain technological behemoths not to be evil.