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Patents and IT industry

Till couple of years back patents wasn't a much heard of term in regular conversation and it was considered a geeky thing that few intellectual people induldged into. Interestingly patents date back to as much as year 1450 and probably was when some of the initial rules started to formulate. By 1790 rules were well established and grant of patent granted protection of 20 years to the inventor.

Since substantial effort and budget can go into innovations, a 20 years protection was a good way to repay the inventors and allow them not to worry about someone else grabbing the baked ideas and start commercializing. Anyone wanting to commercialize the ideas can do so by typically paying royality to the patent owners.

Till some years back, many startups were just getting their products out and not worry about patenting, which made sense as well, as you need to get the product out quickly to get maximum time advantage. However not worrying about or filing patents is now actually becoming a big problem and more so because of patent trolls.

Patent Troll is a term used for individuals or campanies that are seemingly only in the business of filing lawsuits against others for patent infringement. Patent lawsuits when awarded can rake in money and hence some organizations seem to make this as their buisness. However even if someone were not doing this and contesting a patent for really genuine reasons, it is a time consuming process and distracts focus from work to fighting a legal battle to protect the work. In the past year or so, we have seen significant rise in the patent lawsuits between the Apples, the Microsofts, The Googles, The HPs, The Samsumgs etc of the world

Those who try to validate their work againt existing patents are in for another surprise. Pretty much everything seems to have been patented and some of them incorrectly so as discussed in this article. As discussed, there are many patents that are not worth a penny, but will be treated as valid till someone contests these in court and invalidates the claims. From the time of filing to the grant of patent, it typically takes 3-4 years. Then there are different laws as per different countries and patent in region may not be valid in another region.

When the initial laws around Patent were laid down, around 2 decades ago, the industry in general was slow moving and a patent lifespan of 20 years probably made sense. Given the enormous shift the industry has seen in just last 1 decade the question arises is 20 years the right timeline for patent protection or better still do we really need something like patent protection?

Is it really worth patenting? If your intention primarily is to sell some product in market, then you need to focus more on if you are not infringing on anyone else's patent. If not, and you have something worth patenting, you can still ignore that, As you can possibly build and market your product much faster. Once it is published and public domain no one can patent it anyway. Having patents however does allows you to hold onto your methodology and if anyone wants to use it, they need to pay you money. So while patent is an expense initially, it can become an additional revenue channel.

There is however still the question that I asked earlier: Should there be a patent law? It was created in good interest and made sense then. In today's fast changing world, I strongly believe we should relook at it and if not scrape it, at least bring down the validity to maybe 10 years max. In the age of snail mail (remember that?), telegrams made sense. However in today's mobile and always connected age, telegrams are mostly becoming defunct. Point being in earlier years when innovations were low and slow, 20 year patent made sense. However in today's fast paced world, a technology may actually get wiped out during this time.

In their call for papers Cutter is also asking similar questions. What are your views on this?

Comments

Good blogpost. Like you rightly pointed out, there is unduly excessive time and energy being spent on lawsuits. At the same time these patent battles have given rise to a new breed of companies. You've got patent trolls, patent consultancy firms, patent valuation services and what not. (Great employment generation I must say!)

But I think it is still necessary to incentivize an innovator to innovate. If there is no patent protection, then the motivation for taking high risks in investment may reduce.
I do agree that 20 years is too long a period for patent protection. Even 10 may seem too much. I feel that patent laws may need to be more flexible. First of all only genuine applicants should be given patent protection - technology that is breakthrough in nature for instance and not trivial elements such as 'slide to unlock'. Secondly, the duration of patent protection should depend on the time and money spent on the patent generation as well as the monetizing potential of the same. Maybe there could also be a limit imposed on the number of patent filings a company can make in a year, so that only the genuine and patent-worthy elements will actually be filed by companies. Of course all these become very subjective issues and perhaps hard to implement.

@Priya, thanks for your comments. Was reading another article on same topic just earlier today - http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303292204577514782932390996.html.

Wish there is some update to these laws. They are required, no doubt, but with modifications.

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