Wednesday, January 2, 2013

When Patents attack

Kevin Drum has an interesting story about a software patent case:

This hits home for me in two ways. First, the alleged patents date from 1996, and I was personally involved in a project to put scanners on networks starting around 1994. It was cleverly called NetScan, and it eventually failed for a variety of reasons, but by 1996 we had an actual box on the market that allowed you to connect a scanner and program it to send documents to your internal email account. I have no doubt that the patent trolls in this case would argue that the technology we used was subtly different from theirs (we emailed TIFF files, for example, while their patent covers PDFs), but that's almost certainly legalistic nonsense. You connected a scanner to our box, entered a bunch of data identifying users, and then you could scan documents and have them automatically emailed to your desktop. We didn't even bother patenting it because the idea was pretty obvious.
I think that this makes it pretty clear how silly a lot of modern patent law has become.  There is not really any innovation being protected here and, instead, we have a lot of lawyers becoming rich because somebody decided to take out a patent on what people were already doing. 

This makes me extremely skeptical that patents are a direct correlate with innovation, unless you sub-group them very carefully.   And it is highly disturbing to see small businesses (which don't have deep pockets for legal fees) being increasingly targeted by patent lawyers.  There are already a lot of barriers to being a small business.  A catalogue of patents for simple things (like scanning a document to email) would be cumbersome and trying to be compliant with it would be the most onerous set of regulations I can imagine.


  1. My favorite comment from the Ars Technica thread:

    "you know at some point these trolls with go after someone who finds a[n] assassin a bet[t]er investment then a license."

    I was thinking that myself. It would be reprehensible to respond with a Molotov cocktail, but I imagine it would be very effective.

    1. Actually not that effective. They'd probably just bomb an empty office...

    2. That isn't where I would go... I would go Henry VI on them. Like Elton John sang oh so many many years ago:
      "Behind four walls of stone the rich man sleeps
      It's time we put the flame torch to their keep."