I’ve ranted about this topic before. I’m loathe to see that nothing’s changed, and it’s only getting worse.
Back in the old days, a patent meant something. It meant you’d spent time, money, and a lot of effort to innovate. To discover something (be it an object or process) that gave you an edge of your competitors. You patented it so you might be able to make your investment back, and be able to block competitors from using your idea for a certain period of time.
Somewhere along the line, they became more like bling — how many patents do you have? That’s how you judged your worth. Didn’t matter how useful those patents were (some where just plain stupid or unworkable), just that you had them.
In recent years, they’ve been used as bargaining chips or leverage to protect yourself from being sued. You think Google and Yahoo! patent things so they can sue others? Heck, no — it’s to keep themselves from being sued.
But now? Patents aren’t even being used in the original intention — to protect inventors wanting to use their ideas for profit. The patents, regardless of how trivial, are being leased out to other companies for use. Not in productive use (e.g. building something for sale), but to turn around and sue other companies that came up with the idea on their own.
I consider the Microsoft vs. Eolas case similar to this. Eolas didn’t come up with the idea — they got it from the University of California. And they weren’t planning on doing anything with it other than getting half a billion dollars from the world’s largest browser manufacturer. Note that there’s been no lawsuit against any other browser, including Opera.
I should also thank Eolas for forcing Microsoft’s hand, making them hobble their own browser, thus incurring a lot of extra headaches for web developers worldwide. We hope you sleep well on your $500+ million bed.
But now we’ve got two more entries on the field of idiocy. I found my first real nominee for "Jerk of the Year", DeepNines, through an article on Slashdot. DeepNines is at least a technology company, who felt that they should be the only ones to have both an IDS and firewall in a given product. Never mind that McAfee has been developing their system over decades, and such a binding is little more than logical progression. Using a capital loan from an equity firm, leased the patent and turned around to sue someone’s honest work.
It gets worse. Apple, the darling of industrial design aficionados everywhere, is now being sued by a patent holding company. They’re not even in the field of making anything remotely related to software or hardware. They’ve just got the license for the patent! Who cares about what the technology is about — the fact that this holding company is doing nothing more than digging up unused, unwanted patents and illegitimately suing other companies is complete insanity. This cannot have been dreamed of when the USPTO was conceived.
Now we have patent trolls, and I think the name is appropriate: scum who literally sit under bridges, waiting for unwitting mopes to walk across and be robbed for no reason other than opportunity. This is blatant thievery, completely against the idea of patents, and is something that should be stopped immediately.
The sad part is that until patent law is readdressed (Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, McAfee, Apple — get together and lobby for a change or completely repeal in the law), this is only going to get worse. And it’s not just the big companies that will suffer — it will be everyone. Because these lawsuits cost money — big money — and someone ultimately needs to pay for the greed.