The patent world is a jumbled mess. Companies are suing companies left and right. In the end, the consumer and economy get hurt.
News broke yesterday that Apple has won a round in the patent infringement case against HTC. HTC of course is appealing. Meanwhile HTC has purchased S3 to sue Apple. Kodak has sued Apple and RIM. Apple and Samsung are suing each other over patents also. This is just a small smattering of the lawsuits going on over smartphones, and just another example of how broken the patent system is.
A patent ( /?pæt?nt/ or /?pe?t?nt/) is a set of exclusive rights granted by a state (national government) to an inventor or their assignee for a limited period of time in exchange for the public disclosure of an invention(from Wikipedia). A simple enough definition, yet a problem arises with patents in the technology industry. Technology moves fast, and patents cause it nothing but problems. The limit for a patent in the United States, or Europe is 20 years. The amount of time one of the patent lawsuits will go through the legal system is 3-15 years depending on resources of the companies, and whether they come up with an agreement outside of court.
The problem really arises in how many things get patented, and are there other ways to do those same things. A lot of the patent issues arise not from hardware, but from software. Software is a bunch of commands and equations. There are only so many ways to program something. Yes, you can license the patents from the patent holder. Yet if you write something that does a similar function, and goes about it a different way, without that patent license, you still could be sued.
This not only can stifle innovation, but create issues for the end consumer, which are the ones who in the end are supposed to benefit from innovation. Without that innovation, you don’t come up with valid competitors, which may leave a lack of choice and a larger expense to the consumer. The lawsuits can sow confusion in the consumer, slowing down the adaptation of new technologies, putting companies out of business, and increasing the unemployment rate. I am not saying that this will or always does happen, but it is a big chance to take.
Imagine, if you will, if say the Pythagorean Theorem was patented. Better yet, if the Theory of Relativity was patented. Think of all the items, designs, and things that we would be missing out on, or that could be sued into non-existence.
The real fix isn’t licensing, or suing, but a more reasonable term for patents and intellectual property in the world of technology, more specifically software. 20 years is reasonable for a drug, considering that by the time it actually gets to market there is around 5-8 years left on the patent, during which time the companies can make up their investment. A company such as Apple can easily make up its investment in a patent for a smartphone within 3 to 5 years of the device hitting market. The problem is that a drug company takes 12 years to market, research, get approval, and get the drug out to the consumer. A company like apple takes about 3 years to get a new device out and less when creating upgrades for said device. The original investment in the technology itself is only viable with the release of the first generation of said product, otherwise you wouldn’t have new iPhones coming out every 6 months to 1 year.
So what is the answer then? A 10 year software patent? Maybe 5 years? With the rate at which technology changes, it has to be less than 20 years. Otherwise, people could become afraid to innovate, new ideas could be stifled, and we will be left with less of a choice for items that are supposed to make our lives better.