Are technology patents worthless?

Unless you have a formula that cures the common cold or you’re Thomas Edison sent here from the past, you might not have much need for the U.S. patent system.

A patent used to be “inventor’s insurance” and kept innovation flowing. In the new technology frontier, dozens of companies are coming up with overlapping concepts and similar ways of implementing them, only to find out years later that some unknown company with no proof of concept carries the rights to the idea.

It was The New York Times story with James Bessen, a lecturer at Boston University’s law school whose book “Do Patents Work?” will be in stores next year, that got me really questioning the value of patents today. Bessen found that companies rarely recoup the costs of patenting a technology (or avoiding borrowing other people’s patents) and is unsure of a patent’s worth, especially in the tech industry.

The the first thing I was asked by about half the people I pitched the concept of this web site to was what I was going to do about patents and lawyers.

Well, every page of this site is covered under a Creative Commons license. You can find it at the bottom of the page. And while I might not be the best person to give my thoughts on licensing, CC seems like intellectual property protection for the digital age.

Some of the highest profile patent cases in recent memory all seem to fall along the lines of ideas that shouldn’t be patentable. The suit against Sony and Microsoft for their use of remote vibration technology caused little more than a tweaking of the innards. Or the Creative v. Apple suit, where the Zen makers claimed Apple infringed on its patent of a portable music user interface. There was little inventing there; just a new patent number.

The patent system really needs to be overhauled. And if that doesn’t happen soon, the business world will turn to another platform. Don’t think anyone will abandon a government office?The Postal Service used to be the only game in town.

As for IP protection on this web site: I’ll see how it goes, and deal with things when the suits come knocking.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] And then comes a patent reform July 19th, 2007 4:17PM by Mark Milian Filed under: Technology The House Committee on the Judiciary passed the Patent Reform Act of 2007 today, the first major reform to the system in decades. This is a pleasant followup story to my post yesterday criticizing the patent system. […]


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