The Economist blog ‘Democracy in America’ covers the lamentable state of IP. The problem is particularly bad with software patents because they are both so unnecessary to encourage innovation and also because there are potentially so many software patents – software is such an easy medium in which to embody productive ideas. The recent purchase of Motorola Mobile by Google apparently to get itself a stash of patents is truly alarming, because, having spent $12 odd billion on getting the patents and with only a few parties able to marshall sufficient defensive patents to protect themselves against Dark Lord’s like Nathan Myhrvold, Google is then obliged to its shareholders to maximise the value of those patents and to maximise its profit from any mobile phones it makes. And, because of the IP nightmare only a handful of firms will be able to make such products – though only by warding off marauders with threats of counter claims for breaching their own patents.
The article points out one thing that I’d not fully appreciated – that it is precisely the unnecessary nature of the IP system – the coincidental development of the same ideas independently of each other that underpins the profitability of patent trolling.
“Julian Sanchez lucidly explains how the very existence of “defensive patents”, and of companies in the business of selling them, is proof of a badly broken intellectual property system:
1hink about how defensive patents work. Companies aren’t buying them—or buying into the services of companies like Intellectual Ventures—because they provide otherwise unavailable technical insights. The point, rather, is to acquire (or have access to) a bundle of patents that any potential litigant who sues you is likely to be “infringing” in their own products. …
This only works, however, if other companies are almost certain to have independently come up with the same idea. A patent that is truly so original that somebody else wouldn’t arrive at the same solution by applying normal engineering skill is useless as a defensive patent. …
2very patent granted for an idea that any number of suitably skilled engineers could have (and would have, and did) come up with is a patent that probably shouldn’t be granted—a pure deadweight loss that’s actually compounded by the squandering of resources on the “arms race,” with no compensating dynamic gain. Actually, there’s probably a dynamic loss: You end up creating a huge incentive for smart and skilled people to spend their time and energy not coming up with a brilliant idea that nobody else would have, but instead trying to be the first to put on paper ideas that are obvious (to a properly trained and up-to-date person) but haven’t been locked down yet—the solution, again, that almost any professional would have come up with once they were actually trying to implement the relevant technology. A sector where investment in defensive patents is so massive, then, is a sector where—even if some of them do genuinely add value—patents are probably doing more harm than good on net.