Full on and full up: Digital agenda overflowing for the year ahead
Patent trolls and trivial patents
The year ahead is shaping up to be one in which the technology industry tries to tackle the headache of trivial patents (patents granted for vague ideas in the technology area) and patent trolls (officially, PAEs or “patent assertion entities” – companies that stockpile technology patents, including trivial patents).
The idea is that companies will be forced to pay out damages or royalties to those people or patent firms which claim to hold a patent being infringed. The problem, said to cost the US economy alone some $29 billion annually and widely considered to be one of the biggest roadblocks to international innovation and entrepreneurship, arises due to what many claim has been an excessive granting of patents in the tech sector, legal loopholes, the cost of litigation and the abstract claims made by patent trolls.
Huge multinationals, start-ups and every type of company in between can be affected. For young technology companies, without the resources to litigate, a trivial patent claim can damage or even destroy the company, draining critical capital and making prospective investors wary.
Smaller companies have few resources to tackle the issue, but deep-pocketed multinationals have indicated that they have had enough and have started to join together to try to change the system.
In December, a group including Facebook, Google, Dell, Intuit, Red Hat and Zynga filed a brief in the US Court of Appeals in a high profile case between Alice Corporation – a company that holds a large portfolio of patents – and CLS Bank, which Alice claims infringed its patents protecting broadly-defined computer-based financial transactions.
“Many computer-related patent claims just describe an abstract idea at a high level of generality and say to perform it on a computer or over the internet,” the tech giants stated in their 30-page brief. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and department of justice have been holding hearings on PAEs, indicating there may at last be some US government appetite to resolve a problem that is largely US-based.
However, there may be trouble ahead in this area for Europe, which last month finally agreed on a contentious unified European patent scheme. Critics say some aspects of the scheme may open the door to software patent trolls over here.
Irish technology companies can expect to see a considerably better year on the hiring front if, as is currently indicated, the Government brings in a new fast-track technology visa that would reduce the average time it takes to get the nod on employing foreign nationals to a few weeks rather than up to two months. Companies say the long wait to get visas means they lose potential employees.
Barriers to securing visas in Ireland are a problem that the tech sector has been highlighting for years as it struggles to fill vacancies across the industry. Industry bodies have said for the past two years that around 5,000 tech jobs lie unfilled due to problems in finding qualified employees. All of which potentially mean skills gaps in promising tech sectors cannot be bridged, making the State less attractive to companies in these areas.