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09/12/2012

Mobile Patent Wars: when law kills innovation

There is so much talk about Patent Wars that all has been said and said again. 

You want to make some some audience? That's the topic to pick! You want to start a fight with you Android/Apple fanatic friends? Go for it! You want to get rich without inventing anything? Patent something embarrassingly stupid and then sue everyone! 

Headlines are everywhere: Apple is winning this injunction against Samsung to ban import of that phone from those countries, two weeks after Samsung is suing back and making Apple publish a sorry statement on their website. Meanwhile HTC, that already pays Microsoft patents to produce Android phones, settles a cross licensing with Cupertino whose economic part is somehow unclear, Google acquires Motorola to get more patents, Apple teams up with archenemy Microsoft against Google to get some others. In the last rumors Apple and Google could bid together to get 1000 patents from the ashes of Kodak.

Just watch the picture on top. It is from 2011 so it is not up to date with the latest legal battles but it gives you an idea of the extent of the problem.

Despite some people disagreeing, my first point is that there is a problem. Of course it is right to patent some ideas against copy but you can't patent all you want of and think there will not be consequences. Someone sooner or later will be faster than you going to the patent office and than you'll be the one being sued. 

The system has to set simple and bulletproof rules, if not it's chaos. As of now that's not the case: the big players and the older ones secured all sort of patents and created barriers to the new players in the form of royalties. Competitively is screwed. And so innovation: only the big patent owners can move forward and they can do so at their own peace, the others have to design products with the lawyer in mind, not the consumer.

So are patents wrong altogether? Of course not. I'm no lawyer and no economist but a simple method to simplify the matter could be: you should not be able to patent designs/inventions that didn't cost a significant amount of time and money in research and development, that means no patents about black rectangles, swipe to unlock or most design/software patents

That wouldn't stop the big players to secure the more technology based patents but that could be mitigated with good regulation of the chargeable royalties (especially in the case of standard crucial patents). If I spent 10 billions dollars to develop a transmission system it's fair I want something to let you use it in your device. Eliminating such a rule would discourage research and development from the companies that posses the money and the know how to do it (and kill the small companies that simply couldn't afford the costs of this type research and development).

Lastly it would make sense to set an expiration date even for those patents. If you patented something in the 80s that was super cool and now it is a de facto standard that you can't do without, in 20 years you made enough money from the patent to pay you back and much more so just drop it and go make more innovation instead of suing people.

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