In yet another example of the broken US patent system, there is a lively discussion about Innovatio IP, a company that holds key patents that cover WiFi technology implementation, suing the users of wifi rather than the companies with far deeper pockets who build wifi technology. These implementations do not seem on the surface like innovative ideas. Instead, they are an extension of existing, wired-networking practices. Two of their targets are coffee shops and coffee chains that offer free wifi to customers. They threaten a suit in exchange for a $2500-5000 licensing “deal.” This is bald-faced extortion. I imagine that it is likely only a matter of time before they begin shaking down educational institutions for the troll’s unfair dues. What about apartment complexes or public wifi offered by libraries? Find out more and the original story on Slashdot here: Patent Troll Says Anyone Using Wi-Fi Infringes – Slashdot.
Earlier, I drove to Acme to pick up a chicken so that Y could make us home made chicken soup. During the ride, I enjoyed NPR’s All Things Considered coverage of problems with the American patent system, which you can find online here. The NPR piece is a replay of “When Patents Attack,” which was on This American Life recently. You can listen to the whole program from This American Life here.
Patent issues and the East Texas federal courts have long been discussed in online technology circles like SlashDot.org, but it is great to hear that these endemic problems to the American patent system (patent trolling and patent stockpiling) are finding their way to a wider audience.
Personally, I understand that ideas can be turned into commoditized things via patents. If you invent a new thing, I believe that you should have the right to capitalize on that idea in a variety of ways. However, I am troubled by the fact that a substantial number of individuals and businesses are impeding technological innovation by patenting ideas or acquiring the patents of others with no desire to bring the innovation to market. Instead, they want to use these patents to license their ideas to others or sue companies that transgress their patents (in many cases unknowingly). These new impediments to technological innovation have come about in a variety of ways. First, the US Patent Office and new laws have broadened what can be patented. It doesn’t have to be a thing in the sense of “this is a telephone and it is a new invention.” It can be a mere idea for a process, a bit of software coding, or an engineered life form. Secondly, the Patent Office for a variety of reasons has lowered the bar for obtaining patents on frivolous or prior art patents. Thirdly, the East Texas federal court circuit is notorious for its siding with patent holders in deciding cases. This is why many patent holding companies now have their empty offices in Marshall.
The only solution to the current malaise of patent holdings in the US is to enact new patent legislation. Unfortunately, the majority of congressional members on both sides of the aisle and the President himself are pro-business as usual. There are some big players in business who would like things shaken up, but I believe their voice/dollars will be overshadowed by the voice/dollars of the patent-haves. This problem really requires a radical approach, but I don’t believe that will happen right now since Congress can’t even compromise on raising the debt ceiling.