Patently absurd

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 23 September 2011

Because I usually like to side with the underdog (even if the underdog is Microsoft), I must be one of the last people using an old Windows Mobile phone. However, even I realise that for better access to those all so practical apps, I need to jump ship to Apple or Android. But that’s easier said than done.

The digital world is expecting the new iPhone 5 and the next version of Android ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’ in October or November. But if lawyers had their say, we may have to wait a bit longer courtesy patents war between leading technology companies.

Samsung has threatened to block the release of the new iPhone for alleged copyright infringements – maybe as revenge for an injunction that Apple used to stop Samsung from selling its Android powered GalaxyTab in Europe.

To be clear, these are no ordinary patents. For non-lawyers, only major technological breakthroughs qualify for patent protection. However, this is patently untrue.

Modern smartphones and tablet computers are based on tens if not hundreds of thousands of patents. The sheer volume indicates that not all of them represent great technological innovations. Companies are fighting over patenting features like unlocking a phone with a finger gesture.

Apple even claimed that it owned the very idea of a tablet like computer. Samsung retaliated by citing the first tablet computers in the 1970s TV series The Tomorrow People and Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Patent law has gone gaga.

Patents, far from protecting technological progress, have become a tool for blocking innovation. Analysts believe that Google bought mobile phone manufacturer Motorola mainly for its roughly 24,000 mobile-related patents to strengthen Google’s bargaining position in lawsuits.

With modern patent laws, only James Watt and his heirs would have been able to construct steam engines, only the Benz family would produce cars, and only Wright Brothers Ltd. would build planes.

Such ill use of patent laws needs to curbed or soon only Apple can sell flat computers and smartphones. In the meantime, I can only hope the courts will allow me to buy my next generation mobile phone next month.

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