Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Archaic patent laws are threatening innovation: Time to introspect

Some ills of patents in general and software patents in particular (presented in the context of the ongoing patents war in the industry that is threatening innovation itself):

1. Obtaining Patents cost a lot of money. They cost even more paying the lawyers to write the application than they cost to actually apply (and perhaps more than creating the invention itself.) 

2. It is ridiculous to provide a twenty year protection in an industry where rate of obsolescence is few months (especially at a time when the software industry is gradually moving to a cloud based service model and where innovations can come up overnight.) Patents are a hindrance to this natural growth of the industry and may result in unreasonably prolonging the life of a product.

3. Software is different from other engineering and mechanical inventions. The latter are generally the kind that can revolutionize a given mechanical process. Software is generally evolutionary in nature. Its utility does not depend as much on the newness of a specific technique as it does on the unique combination of known algorithms and methods. Such methods of innovation should not be protected.

4. The claim that software is a process (therefore patentable) may not be accurate because software is fundamentally a series of machine understandable code which is processed by the processing power that comes with the hardware of the computer. The hardware is patentable, therefore what is the need for patenting software (which is but a series of code and is well covered by Copyright laws.)

5. Combine Patent laws and the FRAND nonsense and you have a situation where a simple, frivolous UI patent like a human gesture of a swipe across the screen associated with an outcome (which may not be novel enough to be granted a patent in the first place) will be rendered more powerful to the extent of imposing a ban on innovative products of companies whose more technologically complex patents like methods for communication will be rendered impotent (in the name of being essential standard) so that large corporate interests like Microsoft and Apple can have a freehold of the market when all others get banned out of it.

6. There is something wrong with the present intellectual property regime in the US. The patent system suits the American businesses who seem to own all the intellectual property with little or no manufacturing capacity. Take the Apple Vs Samsung case... Apple has no manufacturing capacity... (it outsources all of its manufacturing) but has accumulated patents through frivolously aggressive patenting, outright purchases or coercive cross licensing whereas Samsung has end to end manufacturing capacity. Companies holding on to patents without real manufacturing capacity are nothing but trolls. Even worse is the area of software patents where the USPTO has been known to award fairly obvious and very broad patents to various companies. Perhaps, software should have remained solely under copyright protection and not under the restrictive patent regime which, in any case, was designed for the industries engaged in the production of physical products whose research & development costs are much higher and time consuming. Software (both embedded & embodied), on the other hand, is much cheaper to develop and is far less time consuming.

Apple Vs Samsung - A case in vain

Samsung has been in the phone business for about two decades earlier than Apple. It, along with other early entrants like Motorola and Nokia provided the early breakthroughs in technology to establish the mobile phone industry. Therefore, it would be reasonable to assume that a late entrant like Apple would have copied the all-important technologies that defined a mobile phone. But, no, it is Apple that amazingly, claims Samsung copied it. The in-numerous Apple fans who are blinded by the ‘reality distortion field’ of Apple obviously copy what ever Apple has to say. Similarly, the media too is overwhelmingly focused on the Apple’s side of the story.

The fact, however is Apple has rarely done any ground breaking work. It has merely aggregated already prevalent ideas and technologies to successfully commercialize its products with the help of its humongous PR machine which has mastered the art of creating a 'reality distortion field'. Those that are trapped into this field are totally hallucinated by it and seem to believe only what Apple wants them to believe in while being in complete denial of all other developments that happen in other companies around the world. These people may check out Samsung F700 and LG Prada. Both these devices were developed in 2006 before the iPhone was launched. These companies (including Apple) working separately, came up with remarkably similar designs. So, technologies evolve and parallel developments do happen.

The problem is that Apple and its irrational fans (including those in the media) have been rewriting a distorted history by attributing disproportionate/undue credit to Apple and maligning competitors as copycats. The sheer scale at which this distortion campaign is propagated over the web is mind boggling. Today, Apple is more a myth manufacturer than a real manufacturer, far from what a real manufacturer like Samsung is. Apple is the best perception manager, even though it may be at the cost of distorting computing history.