Monday, July 11, 2011

Patents in the IT world.


It seems that the auction for Nortel's patent portfolio is over.  It appears that the patents were awarded to a consortium which comprises Apple, Microsoft, RIM and Sony among others with which I am not familiar. This has led to accusations that these companies worked together in order to keep the patents out of Google's hands, in order to cripple development of Android.

"But how?" I assume you demand, while adjusting your monocle, and almost spilling some fine spirits upon which you are surely sipping.  This is, I assume, how all non-spambots read my blog (you know, if there were any).  You see, innovation in the tech world is a peculiar beast.  Innovation works best by building upon the existing body of knowledge.  However, this is impossible to do legally when parts of the existing body are patented.  Now here's the catch: everyone does this.  All technology firms which innovate use patented ideas which they themselves do not own.  They do this by building large portfolios of existing patents, buying them from other companies.  This way, should one technology giant sue another for patent infringement, they would themselves face a large countersuit for patent infringement.  This allows for de facto free innovation.

Unfortunately, not everyone is playing nice.  Apple has been overly litigious in recent years, targeting relative upstarts like HTC.  This sort of action is particularly frustrating, especially when one considers that the very idea of a graphical user interface (GUI, or something that isn't a command line), is patented.  I believe it was first developed by Xerox.  In short, they are all stealing the ideas of others, and it is unfortunate that Apple would stunt development by targeting firms which do not yet have large reserves of patents for countersuits.  That being said, it appears all the major players are attempting to stunt Android by denying Nortel's patents to Google.

Speaking from a business standpoint, it makes good sense to block Google.  Android is an open-source project, making the use of the Android operating system essentially free of charge.  This means that rather than paying licensing fees for something like the mobile Windows operating system, technology firms and developers can use Android.  Economically speaking, this means that the Android market share should explode in fairly short order.  Of course, this could be curbed by denying Google a patent portfolio and stunting development of Android.

For the record, I am not against all patents.  It is my understanding that drug companies, in particular, need the patent system to recoup the years of research and development necessary to make a new drug.  Despite what you might hear on television (I remember a rant on an episode of House on the subject), drug companies run a precarious balancing act at times.  Merck-Frosst, a pharmaceutical giant, was almost bankrupt when Vioxx failed.  Now, Vioxx should not really have failed.  After Merck pulled Vioxx from the market due to patient deaths, it was revealed that the problem was due to said patients exceeding the recommended dosage of the drug.  However, the damage was done, and Merck had to absorb the costs of the R&D of Vioxx.  It almost didn't happen.  A pharmaceutical giant was almost destroyed by the inability of patients to follow instructions.

I suppose if it were up to me, a new system would be developed for IT patents which would allow for free innovation, but would protect companies from legitimate theft.  Mind you, I am sure I am not the first one to propose this, and I am certain greater minds have put their efforts forward, so it mustn't be easy.  I use Android, I like it and hope it succeeds.  I suppose I can also hope that the technology giants will play nicely.  It may be a long shot, but we can always hope.