Friday, December 12, 2008

Patent abuse

So I was watching TV the other day and this hilarious commercial comes on: "Do you have an idea for an invention? Have you ever wanted to be an inventor but didn't know how to start? Call now for your free Inventors Kit, and we'll help you get started." I told Brandie.. 'Hey, I wanna quit my job & be an inventor!" Seriously though, these guys represent everything wrong with the spirit of patenting. Companies or individuals who patent ideas to ensure they reap the benefits of their innovation are standing on ethically solid ground. However, all too often patents are filed to create legal ammunition to intimidate, blackmail, and squash competitors.

I'm no patent law expert, but it's obviously wrong when patents are filed (and sometimes granted) for things which are natural progressions of technology. Often with new technology, something may appear an innovation when written in a verbose long-winded patent filing - and I think patents are probably granted inappropriately due to the subjective and complex nature of new technology. Let's consider a few examples of patent abuse:

Amazon one-click shopping: This is a fairly well-known case. Amazon basically got a patent for "buy this" buttons on websites. They used it to sue the pants off their rival, Barnes & Noble. Fortunately recently, the US Patent Office invalidated many of those patents.

Apple multi-touch: With mobile computing, we'll need substitutes for keyboards & mouses. Touchscreens have become the best interface to combine display and input. iPhone was first to market with a next-gen touchscreen device. But should you be able to patent the pinch? Apple has tried... filing patents for multi-touch, where fingers pinch and swirl a screen to manipulate objects. They shouldn't get these patents because there is already prior art, and because this type of interface is a natural progression. You should be able to patent innovation, but not intuition. I think the multi-touch patents will be rejected, but they may slow down progress for the consumer with their attempts.

Human genome: Something must be wrong if you can patent gene sequences. So someone owns my genetic code? I know this is an oversimplification, and the intent is to encourage R&D... but I only think you should be able to patent drugs or technology affecting DNA - not life forms themselves.

There are plenty of other examples of patent abuse. I think that the Patent Office tries, but it ultimately incapable of comprehending and interpreting cutting edge technology to judge when patents should & shouldn't be granted. There are ways that could be improved, such as by "crowd sourcing" patent evaluations so academics and experts could inject into the process. Or here's a thinker for you... get rid of patents altogether.

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