Oct 11, 2004

The Ouroboros-Like Patent System...

The September issue of ACM Queue has an article entitled “Patent Frenzy” by Aaron Weiss which reminds me of my More Lawyers Than Programmers reaction.

The article discusses companies like Amazon with ridiculous claims likes the One-Click patent, in which Jeff Bezos says that Amazon had to patent it, else another company would have, and states that they are not planning to sue people over the patent, but just have it in their portfolio in case someone else tries to sue them. Some think that this reaction exists only because of the reaction of Unisys's patent on the LZW algorithm that was used in the GIF image format, and once the GIF image format became popular, Unisys started requesting royalties for the LZW algorithm. This has unfortunately tainted people against using GIF images, even though the last Unisys patent covering LZW expired in July 2004, although, IBM also has a patent on the LZW algorithm that expires in August 2006.

This highlights one of the largest problems with patent laws, where two organizations have patents on the same technology or where prior art is easily proven. But as Aaron quickly points out, the 3,200 underpaid patent examiners are not only overwhelmed by over 290,000 applications, but are also not well versed in the domains that these patents are for. Another example of this is a patent for hyper-light speed antenna, in which purports a method for sending electromagnetic waves faster than the speed of light. Obviously this patent system assumes that applications are valid until proven otherwise.

The article also describes one of the more sickening industries that are being created, where organizations are created to essentially purchase, enforce, and collect royalties for patents that they did not create. An example of this was the PanIP suits over sales using textual and graphical information to match customers. This article talks about Acacia Technologies and IdeaFlood, in which analysts are stating that this business model is sound.

How can we fix this situation? This is unclear. Amazon's Jeff Bezos suggests limiting patents to 5 years instead of 20 years (which was 17 years prior to a 1995 WTO decision). The FTC recommends adding a mechanism in the patent system to challenge patents out of the court system and to broaden the patent invalidation criteria. Whatever the approach, something needs to be done, as this is obviously being abused.

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