Do patents protect or prevent innovation?
Last week Time magazine referred to the “pestilence of lawyers” that descended upon the trial of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. A similar plague of legal writs seems set to swarm upon the smartphone and tablet market. An area of high-profile innovation seems set to be the battleground for a legal battle over patent rights.
The growing list of potential litigants over who has rights to the myriad of intellectual property that drives some of our favourites gadgets seems a turgid distraction for such high-profile hotbeds of innovation. We want companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft to wow us with new inventions, not battle it out over licence fees for innovations we already have.
Yet patents are in integral part of the innovation process. They reward inventors with a monopoly for a time, offering reassurance that all the frustration of failed attempts along the way will finally pay off.
It’s only fair that the originators garner some rewards. Yet the world of patents is littered with frivolous claims and rewards for those who never pursue ideas to the end, creating no benefit for society. Patents for ideas never developed is not only a waste for their originator but a roadblock to society’s development.
Some suggest the growth of litigation is merely the consequence that the smartphone market is reaching maturity, where the pace of new ideas is starting to slow and firms turn their attention on defending what they have. It’s far too premature, however, to think that the IT sector is anywhere near this plateau.
What may be more likely is that the firms involved are attempting to shore up their positions as titans of industry. To judge the advances made in your own lifetime and the gadgetry that surrounds you might lead you to think that we live in most energetic age of invention. In a way we do, but it has always been so.
There is undoubtedly a fear within these firms that success is fleeting. Peruse any listing of the leading companies of years gone by and you come across names like US Steel or Atari, corporate leaders in the past. In a decade from now, will Google, Apple and Microsoft join the also-rans?
Legal battles are nothing new to the invention process. Inventors are rightly protective of the nascent plans, excited by the new creations. The mother of invention is always eager to protect her offspring.
Yet the battles ahead suggest that a more efficient system of reward should be considered. In this Friday’s edition contributors such as Tim Harford and Chris Horn discuss alternatives, from prize funds to a “use-it-or-lose-it” clause, requiring ideas to be applied, licensed, or at least in further development if the patent holder wishes to benefit from the monopoly awarded by the patent.
Yet closer inspection of the alternatives show that changes to the system will need to be very carefully considered. There is a case that prize fund style reward systems – either through government grants or private awards – work well in solving identified problems,. Yet in many instances, businesses or inventors create solutions that need to find a problem. We never thought we needed an iPhone until we had one. To paraphrase Churchill, the patent system is the worst form of intellectual property protection, except all the others.