Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Patently Ridiculous

I was pleased to read this article in the NYT about a certain Geoff Goodfellow who, it appears, invented the concept of wireless email back in 1982, but who never patented the idea and has never seen a penny of what the article says is a $612.5 million business.

Though it is heresy to voice such an opinion in my industry these days, as a software developer I’ve seen the kind of stuff that gets patented, and I know that the entire system of intellectual property law is broken. Not just with patents, but with Congress’s penchant perpetually renewing copyrights. This is not what the Constitution set out to accomplish with patents and copyrights. As the article says:

For legal and technology experts, the tale of Mr. Goodfellow's pioneering work is evidence of the shortcomings of the nation's patent system, which was created to reward individual creativity but has increasingly become a club for giant corporations and aggressive law firms.

It’s all about litigation taking the place of innovation. A company I used to work for was destroyed quite literally overnight by a patent law-suit based on a concept so obvious that it’s taught in every Computer Science 101 course; but the point is, your patent doesn’t really have to be able to stand up to scrutiny. The point is that most companies aren’t going to have the money to pay for the lawyers to prove it. They’ll either pay you off or they’ll go out of business (and if they do have the money, they’d probably rather just buy the patent off you so they can screw the next guy).

As Goodfellow says:

You don't patent the obvious. The way you compete is to build something that is faster, better, cheaper. You don't lock your ideas up in a patent and rest on your laurels.

What a concept.

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