Why “patent-trolling” is bad for the human race

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Note: I’ve been writing this article in draft form for about 6 months (I’ve been coming back to it with the intention of finishing but never really did until now) and merely the fact that it remains relevant shocks me. I don’t really feel it’s finished but I wanted to get it out there anyway. I’m planning to add to it later.

I recently had a conversation with one of my well respected work colleagues where I made the statement “Patents are the worst thing ever to happen to the human race”. I believe this was in response to the very public recent events between the big tech companies that have essentially been suing each other without stopping for breath. I am of course referring to Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, HTC and Motorola to name just a few.

I was promptly given a stern talking to and informed that I really had no idea what I was talking about, which I decided was not a battle I wanted to fight with someone that I like working with.

Now, I know the statement I started this all with sounds very sensationalist, and with the accompanying title to this post I would be inclined to agree, but I do feel that there is some fuel to this fire that I’ve started by merely moving my lips.

Let me start by first attempting to explain the recent goings-on between the tech giants (Without digressing too much) and also how I feel this relates to humanity as a whole, so bear with me…

The last couple of years, since iOS, Android and Windows Phone have been released (Basically beginning the smartphone era), Apple, Google, Microsoft and other companies (Including Samsung and Motorola) have been continually embroiled in patent battles with each other. The actual legal points on these issues range from the similarities between their respective products to interface features that are also similar. Basically, it’s a big game of ‘Mom! He copied me!’.
The original issues go far far back and are very complex but it has seemingly escalated tit-for-tat between these corporate giants. At one point Apple successfully banned Samsungs Galaxy S2 and Galaxy Tab in Europe because it looked too much like an iPad. At other points, Samsung sued Apple and demanded that they divulge all the secret details of their next unreleased phone, which became the iPhone 4S. This is still going on with Apple trying repeatedly to have Samsungs products banned. Battles have been won and lost between these tech giants, but don’t think that Google or Microsoft have stood by and played nice in the middle of all of this. Oh no…
Google also purchased Motorola Mobile, spinning many industry critics into a frenzy as to their motives. One of the big reasons this means a lot is because it now means that Google is competing with its own Android partners now, which would weaken Androids appeal to companies (Such as Samsung) who have invested a good deal of time, resources and R&D into Android. Many believe this is not a good thing. Will this mean Google will do away with their Nexus program? In my opinion, Android device companies just got a bit more interested in Windows Phone or even HP’s WebOS. Another thing also to be aware of is that Google is basically buying itself into the Apple-Samsung/Android fight.
Microsoft, meanwhile, have begun claiming that Android infringes patents owned by Microsoft which would mean that manufacturers of Android devices need to pay Microsoft a license fee. This separate spree of lawsuits includes Motorola and Barnes & Noble among others.

It’s a good idea to know who is suing who at the moment.

To say the least, this is really silly and destructive to the development and innovation of these platforms. In fact, I believe it is more damaging and costly suing each other repeatedly than it would be to just get on with it.

I cant help but state, quite fairly, that Apple is not an original company. Apple didn’t invent anything that they sell, or at least the vast majority of it. What they have done, as many have before them, is improve. And in that regard, they have done well. To be more precise, Steve Jobs has done well…
To put this heretical statement into perspective, have a think back and try to remember if there were MP3 players before the iPod or touch screen smartphones before the iPhone? Computers before the iMac? Laptops before Macbook? Of there were, so Apple didn’t “invent”any of these things, they have refined and improved on previous ideas and technology, or in other cases brought existing technologies together in a way or form that simply makes them more appealing… Like the iPhone for example. Before the iPhone there were touch screen phones in similar styles and form factors, but they were often clunky and difficult to use. What Apple did was take a good hard look at these products, and their component parts and put them together in a way that made them more appealing.

Let me also state at this point, that apple were not a manufacturer until very very recently, despite all their apple products. They are designers first and foremost. This is an important distinction to make, because there are similar distinctions that separate companies like Microsoft from Sony for example. Microsoft are not a hardware company, and do not want to be. Sony are a hardware company, like Samsung. Hardware is in their heritage. They make stuff, and do it well! Microsoft writes software, and manages services… and does it well, despite what the naysayers may say. Just look at how the Xbox has always matched up against the PlayStation in its vision and focus. It’s been about the software and the services (Services being Xbox Live vs PlayStation Online). But I’m digressing…

Back to the point about patents, and perhaps some informative reading (or watching to get my point across).

I watch TED talks quite often as I find it a very interesting way of hearing amazing ideas, but also to help make sense of some of the things in my life and the world today. I find that the internet, and the constantly evolving methods of communication and sharing it provides, help me more and more to understand my own life, who I am and where I’m going.

TED is one of those places that I advise everybody check out.
FYI: Ted stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design.

In particular I would like to draw your attention to a talk by Mark Pagel who made an inspiring talk regarding ‘How Language Transformed Humanity’ and his concept of ‘Social Learning’. I found this very interesting and it rang a bell with me in regards to this subject. In this talk, Mark makes some effort to describe his idea of ‘Social Learning’ and they way it became an important tool for humanity’s development (I highly recommend you watch it, I’ve embedded the video below).
Note: Video embedded from TEDs YouTube channel because I tried and failed many times to use TEDs own embedded code. Grr… Actual video here on TED site with subtitles etc.

Now let me get this out right away, I’m not suggesting that we start giving things away or that modern day ‘trade secrets’ should be released.
I’m simply making the point that the patent system that currently exists in our society is broken. Plain and simple: Broken.

Why can it not be that a good idea or innovation is just so, and could be patented, but for a vastly reduced amount of time? I would propose 5 years.
This would be time enough to give the inventor/IP-owner prime time to produce this idea/innovation for all to use. It would then be up to them alone to innovate further, rather than sit on the patent and become lazy. It would also discourage the current rising trend of companies (I’m talking about you Apple, Microsoft and Google) amassing a ‘patent warchest‘ for either defensive or offensive purposes… Or just to sit on them and await others to infringe, sparking lawsuits and demands for license fees (Such as the one Microsoft currently claims from Google regarding Android).

It’s broken.

I’m also not saying that closed-source code, such as Microsoft Windows needs to all of a sudden become open-source. Quite the opposite, keep your secrets, and guard them well. Keep your closed-source code closed, and guard your secrets. If somebody wants to attempt to copy you, they have to figure it out themselves and you have a 5-year head start anyway so further innovation is key here. On the flip-side of that, of course, if you do use open source code then you need to donate that back (I’m looking at you Google).

The bottom line is, we could be in a better place right now, or in the near future if we are able to cast aside our greed and notions about holding onto what’s ours.
If innovation was given an opportunity to flourish without fear.

It is my belief that there are only so many ideas in the world at once, and that they will keep getting stirred around and around until a big innovation creates a new paradigm which then heralds a flurry of copies and improvement of that original concept. As an example of this, ask yourself how long you have been using a mouse and keyboard. Then ask yourself how long is it going to take to replace the mouse and keyboard we know and love. And by replace I don’t mean by some gimmicky product, I mean by something that the world genuinely sits up and pays attention. It will come, one day. We won’t be clickity-clacking at our desks giving ourselves RSI forever. When that happens the world will move forward, and there will be a flurry of development before the next paradigm shift.

I’m not claiming to know all the answers to solving this issue, as it is very complex, but I would be remiss if I did not speak out or challenge something that I see as inherently wrong, broken and as exploited as the D&D 3.5 handbook.

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