Are the Patent Wars now a barrier to Technological Innovation?

Mike Halsey MVP
Oct 22, 2011
Updated • Nov 29, 2012

If you look around the world at the moment you will see anti-capitalist demonstrations everywhere.  Here in the UK, the historic St Paul's Cathedral in London, which was built in 1677 and was the wedding venue for Diana, Princess of Wales is currently closed for the first time since the second world war because of protesters.  Now primarily these people are protesting against the big banks and finance companies and the fact that 40% of the world's wealth is owned by the top 1% of earners.

I wanted to get a debate going here though on capitalism in technology, with particular reference to the ongoing patent wars.  First some background.  Technology companies are different from other big business in that they were generally started by visionary people, like Steve Jobs and Clive Sinclair, who wanted to change the world for the better.  These people wanted to open up access to technology for everybody and largely they've done that.  This means that the entire basis for the big modern technology companies hasn't been money and greed, it's been helping people gain access to new opportunities.  This is something that sets technology companies apart from almost all of the rest of big business.

Now it has emerged that some Windows 8 Metro app developers are concerned they may be targeted by a company called Lodsys for patent infringement of in-app billing.  The patent wars have now got to such an extreme state where small, independent software houses now have to worry about it.

These patents are a big problem now because there are so many of them out there, all being owned or traded by multinationals, and there's no way to be sure that what you do hasn't already been patented by someone else.   However, when you are creating a smartphone, a tablet or even an app, there are only so many ways to make it look, what size it will be or how certain features operate.  When you take into account operating systems like iOS, Windows Phone and Windows 8 though that are trying to encourage app developers to make apps that look and operate in the same way the situation can only get worse.

Personally, I believe the the patent wars have now gone too far and the big players involved need to back off, stop focusing on the money and allow the innovation not only that people want, but that we all genuinely need.  This can only create more competition, drive down prices and open technology up to more people, the way people like Steve Jobs originally intended for things to be.  If we really want to create access to technology, access to the Internet and access to new opportunities, especially for the developing countries, we need to take this focus away from money now and go back to basics.

I'm very curious what your comments are about this as I feel you're all either going to agree strongly or you'll be completely polarised on the issue.  Please leave your comments below, it's free, it's open and anybody can take part  ;)


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  1. chris said on October 28, 2011 at 12:41 am

    “This can only create more competition, drive down prices and open technology up to more people, the way people like Steve Jobs originally intended for things to be.”

    Didn’t Steve Jobs start this war? You think Apple got into these lawsuits without approval from Jobs. Steve Jobs may have been a good business man, but he is nowhere near the saint his is portrayed. He was morally corrupt.

  2. jhammer said on October 25, 2011 at 2:04 am

    I think patents are a good idea, to a certain point. The issue isn’t someone patenting their idea, it’s (yet again) how things are taken too far. Just for example, patent an Ipod, fine, don’t patent the shape of the glass or a specific color. (not saying it was, just that it’s getting to and beyond this point)
    When it comes to the patents being issued, there is a major lack of understanding in the first place.. For the new technical world, you cannot simply patent a gui, a folder, a file, or a taskbar for instance, yet in the past, there have been very quirky patents that make legal battles explode even further. The equal to what I’m stating here is that someone goes in and say… patents a coffee cup, someone else creates another type of cup, a patent war breaks out saying the handle is patented and anything with a handle cannot be used due to this patent. Right there, you’re killing innovation.
    It’s always a back and forth game as well. If one giant is getting hit with a patent, they cry freedom and rights, however, if it’s that giant defending a patent, it’s a different view and opinion. (Remember when Sony defended their CD burners? Then cried piracy years later?) It fit their pocketbook to sell CD burners then and didn’t want the RIAA putting the kabosh on their market sales, until it no longer mattered of course.
    Basically, the patent system needs to be completely re-written or at very least, looked over from a specific year, by those who NOW understand technology and that it’s impossible to patent certain aspects of any technology without a war breaking out or halting progress.

  3. VD said on October 24, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    I guess I go in line with many comments that Steve Jobs and Apple did bring many innovations but not due to the benefact of the users but to enrich their banking account. Being in contrast to competition can clearly be seen in Apples products denying people to use the software, music as they like. I can´t think of a company which shuts down it`s products to open software in any way like this

  4. Vivek said on October 23, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    I would like the author to reply to all the comments

  5. Nebulus said on October 23, 2011 at 1:48 am

    Patents should never exist in the first place, or if they do they should have a VERY limited time period (5 years, for instance).

  6. saswat said on October 22, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    You know companies even tried to patent basmati rice and medicinal uses of neem and these have been in use in the indian subcontinent since thousands of years!so much for the american patents office policy of priority to first filling! Greedy unethical corporations

  7. Lucio Mollinedo said on October 22, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    “the way people like Steve Jobs originally intended for things to be.”


    The man was a strong advocate of the current patent system, and he used it until he died to fight Samsung.

  8. Mike J said on October 22, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    I don’t really have an opinion on this topic. One aspect of these business disputes that bugs me is the fact that the trial courts, appellate courts, and entire legal process are funded by taxpayers, not the (usually extremely wealthy) litigants. These lawsuits can last years and eat up small fortunes in public funds.In the U.S., they take up docket space that might go to diversity (residents of different states) actions where an individual was badly injured, say, in a car wreck, or bump criminal proceedings indefinitely, to the detriment of the defendant and the general public.But, the right to ownership of intellectual property is guaranteed by the Constitution, and Big Business runs the government in any event.
    Ben Franklin invented the lightning rod, glass harmonica (a glass instrument, not to be confused with the metal harmonica), Franklin stove, bifocal glasses and the flexible urinary catheter.He refused to patent any, saying:”… we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.” Not much of that spirit around nowadays….

  9. mark said on October 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Patents are not a bad thing, they are make to be copied you just need to pay a royalty to the owner of the patent, if you just down right steal the patent, than t hat is a different story. Just ask apple about that one ..Boy Google should be sued over the top on all this android Mess that they just stole from everyone.

  10. Samo said on October 22, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    “This can only create more competition, drive down prices and open technology up to more people, the way people like Steve Jobs originally intended for things to be.”
    Seriously? Jobs was the advocate for competition, low prices and open technology? Really? It’s one thing to pay a dead man your respect, it’s entirely another to make him into some fictional Jesus-like figure with no basis to such claims. Getting sick of so many necrophiliac bloggers jumping on his dick right after his greedy ass expired.
    Apple is the biggest patent troll today, and don’t say Jobs intended that to be any other way. He was quoted swearing to destroy the open source Android platform because he “believed” Google “stole” most of it from iOS.
    Anyway, it’s obvious the patent system doesn’t work anymore. No one should be allowed to patent generic things like “touch interface” or “1-click order button”

  11. Efthimios said on October 22, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    I think that you present the issue from an idealistic point of view. Some people might be visionaries but that does not mean that they did not have profit in mind while they were working to turn their visions into the devices we all use today. I mean, the $100 notebook is an excellent idea and quite feasible if older generation computer parts were used to support it. Guess why new models of the iPad keep coming out of the production line while the $100 notebook movement is stalled.

    Yes, patenting has gone too far and all but a small number of software developers would like to see an end to it. However, do you really expect multinational corporations to just give up profiteering, “back off”, and give smaller developers a break? It is not likely to happen any time between today and the day our sun turns into a red giant and engulfs the earth.

  12. Vivek said on October 22, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    U have written very good things about jobs..perhaps u forgot this ?
    and the fact that patent wars was started by his company ?

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