So almost every day, you hear about the status of one of those ongoing lawsuits in the tech industry. These days it’s Apple versus someone-or-other or one of those someone-or-others versus Apple. The legal skirmishes are largely focused on the iPhone, iOS and the iPad, with Apple insisting that their intellectual property is being violated by the knockoff du jour.
At the same time, you have to wonder how companies with supposedly smart engineers and lawyers manage to commit so many supposedly egregious offenses. Surely they’ve had the time to compare their new products with those of other companies, and there should be an in-house computer database of patents so they can see the areas in which they might conflict.
On the other hand, it may well be that there are so many patents in force that it’s nearly impossible to ever know which ones you’re violated. You roll the dice, hoping your product or service will escape notice, well maybe.
But it seems to me, and I’m not a patent attorney, that some are so simple and so obvious that it makes no sense for patent agencies to grand exclusivity. Take, for example, Amazon’s famous 1-Click ordering system. On the surface, it comes across as supremely logical. Click once after adding an item to your shopping cart, and the order is placed. Behind the scenes, Amazon and other vendors who use the system are charging your credit card or initiating a transfer from your bank account, and using your specified shipping address with which to send your merchandise, if you aren’t just ordering a service, such as a streaming video or MP3.
The logistics of performing a 1-Click transaction are said to be fairly easy, involving cookies and other traditional Web tools. So the question arises: What raises this feature to the level of a technology that’s sufficiently innovative to grant someone a patent?
Of course, other companies have opted to pay the piper rather than fight. Even Apple licensed 1-Click to handle their online transactions. Of course that happened in 2000, when Apple wasn’t exactly a financial powerhouse, so maybe they felt it would be cheaper to just send Amazon a check.
So what was the United States Patent and Trademark Office thinking when they decided that 1-Click was something special, something unique, something that deserved a patent?
But that’s not the only example of what strikes me as foolishness. Consider TiVO and their almost endless lawsuits against Dish Network, which was eventually resolved to the former’s favor. The feature? The ability to record one TV show (or Pay-Per-View movie) while watching another. It seems so eminently sensible that it’s hard to imagine any one company getting exclusivity. However, it may also be true that the underlying process proved difficult to perfect, and thus TiVO deserved that patent. Certainly most of their income these days comes from licensing rather than the sale of those DVRs, so it all makes sense, I suppose.
However, some intellectual property claims do seem a tad curious. It seems to me that Apple might be going overboard in attacking competing companies, particularly Samsung. Consider the shape of a smartphone or an iPad. The argument is that, viewed from a distance, Samsung’s tablet and an iPad seem almost the same. Perhaps. But now look at ten 50-inch flat panel TVs from a distance where the manufacturer’s labels aren’t readily discernible. How different do they look, really? The same can be said for any number of generic PCs.
But a TV isn’t necessarily an equivalent example, since many of these products actually use identical internal parts. The LCD and plasma panels installed inside TVs from many companies are really sourced from only a few. Other internal parts may also be generic, although each manufacturer may build unique silicon to cover signal processing, menu displays and other features that are meant to stand out from the crowd. No doubt there are patents covering many of these features.
When it comes to the PC box, however, most parts are the same, from processors, to graphics chips, hard drives, solid state drives, and optical drives. To compete with the MacBook Air, Intel has created and is licensing an Ultrabook reference design. A PC maker only has to essentially duplicate the blueprint using the same or similar components, put their own branding on that box and call it their own. That, alas, is true for most PCs these days.
What bothers me about the whole thing, however, is how much time and money is wasted defending intellectual property. Apple is clearly investing many millions to defend their intellectual property. And while they deserve to protect their patents, you have to wonder if the agencies who grant those patents might do well to consider raising the bar. To be protected, an invention has to be unique, not just a minor variation of what came before, or something that, on the surface and below the surface, is so simple it hardly makes sense to grant ownership of that design to a single individual or company.
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