It’s hard to read the tech news these days without seeing headlines about the latest patent lawsuits.Sometimes it seems the news is more about the lawsuits than actual technology.
I certainly believe in free enterprise and that people should be rewarded according to their efforts and success in those efforts. I also believe in intellectual property (IP) protection: copyrights, trademarks and patents. But I also believe these all need to be applied sensibly, or more to the point, the rights should be granted more sensibly. I know… what world do I live in?
Copyrights are easy. If someone writes something, a book, a poem, a speech, a piece of code; no one should be allow to just copy it and use it without appropriate remuneration going to the creator, at least for some period of time.
On the other hand, trademarks and patents are more complex and therefore more susceptible to becoming victims of their own broken processes, especially give those processes are run by the federal government. And in my opinion and the opinion of many others, both are severely broken.
What should one be able to trademark? Clearly McDonalds has the right to their name with respect to food service. General Motors has the right to their name with respect to the automobile industry and Microsoft in the IT world. Likewise Facebook has a right to the exclusive use of its name in context. But should Facebook have the right to “Face” in the IT world? They were indeed granted that trademark. How about “Wall”? They have “Wall’ and are trying to claim ownership of “Book” albeit by means of the unregistered trademark process. Not a big deal? In 2010 Facebook sued and successfully shut down a new travel website called Placebook. In 2011 they sued an educational site called Teachbook. That one they eventually settled and Teachbook became TeachQuest, but at what cost to Teachbook? Bullies like Facebook and other huge companies with seemingly unlimited resources (read as more lawyers than coders) can put the small guy out of business just by threats. As for me, I think they are getting what they deserve with regard to the performance of their stock: FB
But those are minor skirmishes compared to the patent wars raging.
What should one be able to patent? Supposedly things that are non-obvious.
In Apple’s recent epic battle with Samsung (of which they are down 2:1 internationally) the one battle they won was in the US. One of the patents of which Samsung was convicted of violating was for rounded square icons on the home screen interface. Are you kidding me? A patent for rounded corners on an icon?
Samsung’s press release after the verdict says it all:
Today’s verdict should not be viewed as a win for Apple, but as a loss for the American consumer. It will lead to fewer choices, less innovation, and potentially higher prices. It is unfortunate that patent law can be manipulated to give one company a monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners, or technology that is being improved every day by Samsung and other companies.
In one sense you can’t blame Apple for trying but what kind of incompetent bureaucrat in the PTO would grant such a thing? Obviously no Einstein.