Patents are scary

I’ve always thought it was scary that someone could obtain a patent for putting an element into two linked lists, so that you can have different orders of traversal. That’s negligent on part of the Patent Office. Seriously, it was granted April of 2006. This patent covers a simple application of the fundamentals in data structure that computer scientists learn in school, there is absolutely nothing novel about it. To me, it’s like patenting summations: “in my formula, I summed them forwards and backwards.” I can see it already, the title of the patent would be: “Summation through repeated application of addition.” Yet, it was granted.

Okay, so stupid things get patented, why’s that so scary? Because of litigation. In this suit, Apple and Motorola are duking it out. It’s heated, it’s complex, and millions of dollars are tied up in it. As a large company, you must be filing patents and putting stuff into your Intellectual Property playbook just for these occasions. You’re only defense is to have a portfolio of your own to assert against the accusers. To see this in action, Florian Mueller put together a slide deck showing the process step by step. It’s insane. Now, I don’t know about the individual patents named in the suit, but I’m willing to bet more than half are frivolous on both sides. In fact, I’m willing to bet that very little on either side is actually a genuine invention.

When I see the complexity of the lawsuit, it makes me shudder. Each side is going to spend millions defending their patents. The part I find scary: what if that energy takes aim at a smaller competitor? They’re done. Patents as they stand today, especially Software Patents are perpetuating a situation in which the big guys can hold their dominate position because they’ve been able to secure frivolous patents that you can’t defend against without your own portfolio of equally frivolous patents.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m business-minded, but I have a degree of practicality in me too. I would want to protect the IP I generate too, but I think there should be a much better job of scrutinizing what is and is not an invention. It’s clear that when you can patent a linked list, that something is utterly broken. If it were a rare event, that would be one thing. However, it’s much more widespread than that. At this point, Software Patents should just die. They stifle innovation, instead of protecting it. It’s giving weapons to those with money to hurt those without. It threatens to imbalance capitalism instead of protecting it because the process is broken.