Stop the Patent Insanity, Now!

Earlier, I confidently declared that 2011 would be the year of the hacker. I seem to be dead-on accurate with that one. But what I missed completely was another scourge that is in some ways worse: 2011 is also the year of patent insanity.

Now, I am not a patent and trademark attorney, a fact for which the American Bar Association is deeply grateful. I do not pretend to understand the intricacies of the patent process, and I appreciate the need to protect innovators and their inventions.

[ InfoWorld's Bill Snyder cites another effect of the patent war: the loss of tech jobs. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter and follow Cringely on Twitter. ]

Apple Connection Patent
Apple Connection Patent
But really, enough is enough. We're in a patent bubble, and it's not being fueled by a desire to build life-enhancing products or protect the intellectual property of hard-working researchers. It's about lawyers filling their pockets and companies attempting to snuff out their competition via the courts of law instead of the market and/or grow fat on the efforts of others -- and it really has to stop.

Why did Google drop $12.5 billion on Motorola Mobility? Patents.

Why did Microsoft and Apple join forces with RIM and Sony to swallow the assets of Nortel? Patents.

Why did Google counter that by making a deal with IBM? You know the answer to that one.

Apple Keyboard Patent
Apple Keyboard Patent
It's not because these patents contain the secret to perpetual motion machines or toast that always falls butter side up. It's because they know they're going to get sued, and they need ammunition to sue the suers. It's called mutually assured destruction (MAD). It's the cold war all over again, only instead of the United States and the Soviets, it's Apple, Google, Microsoft, fill-in-the-blank; instead of pointing ICBMs at each other, they're aiming the USPTO.

Exhibit A: The Apple-Samsung suit in The Hague, growing more absurd by the moment.

A Dutch court just blocked the sale of Samsung Galaxy smartphones in Europe after determining that Samsung violated Apple's patent on a "portable electronic device for photo management."

Here's a snippet of the process for which Apple was granted a patent:

The computer program mechanism includes instructions, which when executed by a portable electronic device with a touch screen display, cause the device to: display an array of thumbnail images corresponding to a set of photographic images; detect a scrolling gesture comprising a substantially vertical movement of user contact with the touch screen display; and respond to the scrolling gesture by scrolling the display of thumbnail images in accordance with a direction of the scrolling gesture…

In other words: Display a row of small pictures and move them up or down when somebody swipes their finger across the screen.

Quick, somebody call the Nobel committee, I think we have a winner.

Nintendo Wii Football Patent
Nintendo Wii Football Patent
Apple has already been accused of submitting images of Samsung's smartphones and tablets that were doctored to look more like Apple's. Samsung, meanwhile, is relying on the science fiction defense. Its attorneys filed a brief this week citing Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" as evidence of prior art for the iPad. You know what? Samsung might be right. Those computers in that photo sure look iPaddish to me.

Naturally, Samsung is countersuing Apple, claiming it violated at least 10 Samsung patents. Need I mention that Samsung is a major supplier of parts for Apple products, to the tune of nearly $6 billion last year?

Is this all just posturing, an attempt to exert market control or extract a few dollars per unit out of the competition? Maybe. But it's killing innovation, not rewarding it.

Right now Congress is mulling a "patent reform" bill -- the first major change to U.S. patent laws in more than half a century. But it just looks like more of the same old same old, favoring corporations over individuals and doing little to kill off patent trolls or stave off lawsuits.

Me, I'm with PCWorld's Katherine Noyes, who argues (along with many others) that software patents like the one described above need to go the way of the buggy whip and the rotary phone:

Patents are causing harm throughout the software industry… What's especially crazy about it all is that we simply don't need software patents. We have copyright, and that provides innovators with more than enough protection at a fraction of the expense.

It's time to call off this insane patent arms race, or we will all pay a steep price.

Amen to that, sister.

Are patents killing the tech industry? If so, what are you gonna do about it? Plot your schemes below or email me the skinny: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Stop the patent insanity -- now!," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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