The Tech Curmudgeon read last week that Samsung was challenging Apple’s iPad patents, demanding that Apple prove its patents were valid. About damn time. Whatever lawyer it was in the patent office who granted the first software patent needs to be run out of town on a rail. And the lawyer who granted the first “design appearance” patent needs to be tarred and feathered and then run out of town on a rail.
Software patents are one of the most egregious misuses of patent protection that exist. There was a time when the patent office would reject patents for 3rd Grade math or simple sorting algorithms, but no longer. For the last couple of decades, anyone could code an obvious calculation method for a spreadsheet program and then patent that code. With that patent in hand, you could not only sell a crappy spreadsheet program, but you could also sue all the other spreadsheet program developers who used your patented code for a simple, obvious calculation. Yay, more litigation!
After a while, though, some people figured out that you didn’t even have to waste time and money developing a real, functional, useful product – you could simply write the code, patent it, and sue the pants off everyone who had the audacity to program “2+2=4.” And lo, patent trolls were born. Some patent trolls have evolved away from that whole, pesky “writing the code” part and simply bought patents from companies who had tried to make something useful but discovered that they couldn’t afford the licensing fees.
And then some brilliant lawyer realized that patents were legally stronger than trademarks if they could be effectively defended, so the entire idea of a “design appearance” patent was born. That’s one of the things that Apple has sued Samsung over – making a tablet that looks too much like Apple’s patented iPad design. Appearance patents are often overturned, but it’s cheaper for most companies to simply roll over to the Apples and Motorolas and Samsungs of the world.
And yes, The Tech Curmudgeon meant it when he wrote “Samsung.” Samsung is no better than Apple here, using dozens if not hundreds of its own crappy software and appearance patents against Apple’s crappy software and appearance patents. Instead of competing in the marketplace, instead of letting their consumers decide whose products work better, instead of playing by the goddamned rules, Apple and Samsung are squaring off against each other like two gangs of thugs, each composed of patent lawyers armed with baseball bats, clubs, and other blunt weapons. Even Google, that supposed bastion of “don’t be evil,” has had to get down and dirty in the courthouse back alleys with their own crappy patents. That’s why Google just bought Motorola’s phone division – not because they care about manufacturing Motorola’s phones, but because Motorola has a ton of crappy patents that Google can use to defend their precious Android software from Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Nokia, et al.*
Software and appearance patents have become so absurd that at this point it’s safe to say that, had James Maxwell been working for IBM when he discovered the equations governing electromagnetism, IBM would have demanded a piece of the action for everything from radio to television to Ethernet networks. Had Isaac Newton been working for Intellectual Ventures when he invented calculus, college students would be required to add “™ IV” after every derivative and integral they wrote. And had Aristotle worked for Apple when he developed classical logic, we’d have to fork over a nickle to Apple every time we made a logical argument.
Patents used to actually mean something. They used to mean that someone had created something new and unique, and that the government considered the creation so valuable that the creator was worthy of holding a temporary monopoly on who built or used it. No longer. Now patents mean that some loser came up with some hack idea and just happened to get his submission to the patent office 30 microseconds before the other 2,000 losers who had the same hack idea. Instead of patents being used to advance science, technology, and culture, they’re being used as weapons in a gang war that does nothing to advance anyone but patent lawyers. Patents today are clogging up the courts and impeding scientific and technological progress, the exact opposite of what was intended in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution of the United States!
So The Tech Curmudgeon is thrilled that Samsung is demanding a review of Apple’s patents – because it’ll open up the gates to a review of Samsung’s own patents, and then spread beyond to Motorola and IBM and Intellectual Ventures and all the patent trolls who are sucking the life blood from technological advancement. And when it’s all done, The Tech Curmudgeon bets that 99% all the design and software patents that have been issued in the last few decades will be tossed out as invalid. As they should be.
And when that’s all done, it’ll be time to shine that same spotlight on gene patents.
So says The Tech Curmudgeon.
(*All these companies hold legitimate and real hardware patents too, so the patents aren’t all crap. Just the overwhelming majority of the patents used in litigation.)