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On Monday, the New York Times ran an article bringing to light the challenges plaguing a U.S. Patent Office that is ill-equipped to function in the 21st century. Please take a look at the article, it is a wonderful read, but I have re-posted an excerpt below:

“In 2008, Mr. Phillips’s company, Vlingo, had been contacted by a much larger voice recognition firm called Nuance. “I have patents that can prevent you from practicing in this market,” Nuance’s chief executive, Paul Ricci, told Mr. Phillips, according to executives involved in that conversation.

Mr. Ricci issued an ultimatum: Mr. Phillips could sell his firm to Mr. Ricci or be sued for patent infringements. When Mr. Phillips refused to sell, Mr. Ricci’s company filed the first of six lawsuits.

Soon after, Apple and Google stopped returning phone calls. The company behind Siri switched its partnership from Mr. Phillips to Mr. Ricci’s firm. And the millions of dollars Mr. Phillips had set aside for research and development were redirected to lawyers and court fees.

When the first lawsuit went to trial last year, Mr. Phillips won. In the companies’ only courtroom face-off, a jury ruled that Mr. Phillips had not infringed on a broad voice recognition patent owned by Mr. Ricci’s company.

But it was too late. The suit had cost $3 million, and the financial damage was done. In December, Mr. Phillips agreed to sell his company to Mr. Ricci. “We were on the brink of changing the world before we got stuck in this legal muck,” Mr. Phillips said.”

I am glad that this ran on the front page. Even with an economic crisis plaguing this country, fixing the broken patent and copyright system is often overlooked as a potential solution to stimulate American innovative power. A patent is essentially a government-sanctioned monopoly, and should not be given away lightly. What if a restaurant patented the method of “taking orders and serving food to customers in cars”. What if an appliance company patented a “metal box that lowers the temperature inside and keeps it cold”? What if an auto company patented a “circular wheel which directs the movement of an automobile”? What if a manufacturer patented the process of “taking fibers and pressing them together to produce flexible sheets”? What if, what if, what if... But of course, these patents are completely fictional, because they are all ridiculous. These are all standard common-sense ideas that everyone in a certain industry would need access to in order to remain competitive. Patents need to be specific, like Patent #D21H 2118, which states:
“A method for manufacturing paper with improved strength by introducing into the paper pulp in the wet end of a paper making process an aqueous starch dispersion of a gelatinized cationic starch and a blocked glyoxal resin.”
Sure, you still need to take fibers and press them together to produce paper, and I'm not a scientist, but this patent gives the inventor of this specific technique the ability to make better paper through a more specialized process. That is what the patent is supposed to do: protect innovation.

In the technology sector, however, the U.S. Patent Office has been allowing people to stifle competitor's innovation by approving patents such as a “method or system for selecting and conjugating a verb” (Microsoft), “method and system for navigating paginated content in page-based increments,” or page up/down buttons (Microsoft again), and “communicating a newsfeed of media content based on a member's interactions in a social network environment” (Facebook). Even more ridiculous: “method and system for creating an interactive virtual community of famous people” (invented by a patent lawyer while he was shopping for groceries). And of course there are the famous patents Apple used to win a billion dollars from Samsung: The ability to enlarge documents by tapping the screen, using square icons to denote “apps”, having a product that is rectangular in shape and white, and rectangular and black. This is simply ridiculous. Bill Flora of the New York Times argued that enforcing patents like these is like enforcing patents on round steering wheels. As Business Insider put it:

“Even filing for patents on these features, let alone enforcing them, is beyond lame, especially for a company [Apple] that is already so rich and powerful. Yes, the U.S Patent Office is partly responsible--imagine the laughter and disbelief among Apple's lawyers when they were actually granted a patent on "rectangular and white.”
This brings us to the “patent trolls”, companies which consist only of lawyers who accumulate (or “invent”) patents and sue legitimate businesses for patent violation. According to researchers from Lex Machina, UC Hastings, and Stanford, patent trolls accounted for 40% of all patent-related lawsuits in 2011. By suing legitimate businesses, patent trolls cause their victims to lose millions of dollars in legal fees and hundreds of hours of lost productivity when engineers must consult with lawyers instead of inventing. Consider the case of Golden Bridge Technology, which claims the patent on 3G wireless and sued Apple, Samsung, Motorola, Barnes & Noble, Lenovo, LG, HP, Research in Motion, Sony, and every other major wireless device company. They boast a total of three employees, one of whom is a “patent administrator”, and hold contracts with six law firms. Six! For a company with three employees! Although this is an extreme case, that doesn't mean that patent trolls should be underestimated. Like I argued above, high-profile companies like Apple can also be accused of patent trolling, even if it is not their primary business. In the end however, while our nation's broken patent system allows patent trolls and large businesses with lots of money to win, the biggest losers are small businesses like Vlingo.

Do you think the U.S. Patent Office needs reform? Discuss and feel free to leave comments!

Originally posted to Edmund Xu on Fri Oct 12, 2012 at 06:06 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech and Community Spotlight.

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