Monday, March 21, 2011

Patents and Routine Engineering

One of the great evils of the 21st century is our system of patents. I’m guessing that they were devised to help the little guy not get plowed over my the 200 pound gorillas out there, but these days they do anything but that. They’re just tools to try and force an unwarranted monopoly on an existing market.

What really irks me is when someone gets away with claiming they own ‘routine engineering’. Some guy writes some unspectacular code that is slightly different than the current, growing and ever changing conventions. Clearly a derivative work. Nothing awesome, but just a minor tick better. Then if he’s at a big shop, a horde of lawyers descend and turn that into something that they can fight about later. Ick.

One way to kick patent trolls is to limit damages to lost revenue. No product? Then no damages. Also, make it illegal to sell the patents by themselves. If they want the patent, they have to buy the whole division that produces the relevant product. And it wouldn’t hurt to limit the patent down to five years or so; not an entire generation’s worth of twenty.

Another thing to do is not allow obvious patents. That is, no one should ever be allowed to patent something trivial like an ‘on switch’ for which you have no choice but to add it. That also applies to some of these NUI patents. You have to interact, that’s clearly prior art, so the actual specifics of how that is done is just a derivative. If someone is too close, that’s what trademarks are for ...

Even better would be to make it possible for the little guy to actually protect their work too, instead of just the behemoths. What’s the point of a set of laws if they doesn’t actually do what they were intended to do.

What I’d be in favor of is forming a new ‘international’ patent office. One that handles this in a fair way on a world-wide basis. Just to make it more interesting, not only would you have to have a product that was affected, but you’d also have to have it in a common local market with the offender, in order to claim compensation. Also, an option to have the patent granted, but not fully filed (to make it cheaper for both the submitting and the checking) would help. People could write up crude patents for a small fee, but only go through the legal nightmare if there was an issue. If they never get a product to market, then their patents would be useless (and never need to be checked).

Patents suck. It’s about time someone fixed them.