The excitement that technology tools have brought the world over the last decade has to be tempered by the recent article Charles Duhigg and Steve Lohr wrote for the New York Times about the battle for patents and how they are now being used as weapons in the fight for greater profits and control of technology.
The article addresses the value that patents have, particularly in this technological age. The person or company that creates a product obviously deserves the credit—and the reward—that goes with such innovations. But the article suggests companies are now using patents as a tactical device to control what others are trying to do to make breakthroughs in technology—something that consumers want to see happen.
As Duhigg and Lohr write:
“Patents are vitally important to protecting intellectual property. Plenty of creativity occurs within the technology industry, and without patents, executives say they could never justify spending fortunes on new products. And academics say that some aspects of the patent system, like protections for pharmaceuticals, often function smoothly.
However, many people argue that the nation’s patent rules, intended for a mechanical world, are inadequate in today’s digital marketplace. Unlike patents for new drug formulas, patents on software often effectively grant ownership of concepts, rather than tangible creations. Today, the patent office routinely approves patents that describe vague algorithms or business methods, like a software system for calculating online prices, without patent examiners demanding specifics about how those calculations occur or how the software operates.”
At a time when the next big technology breakthrough could earn someone billions of dollars it is easy to see why so many companies would fight for a piece of the prize. Sadly, though, this inhibits cooperation and the sharing of ideas to make those breakthroughs operational.
It seems like a “pie in the sky” wish that companies could see the value in sharing and certainly technologists have a long history of working with open source technology and acknowledging the freedom of the Internet. But when Apple reportedly sells $1 billion in iPhones each week, corporate investors demand protection for their technology and fighting for a piece of anything that is remotely related to what their researchers have worked on.
There are those who are proposing changes in the patent world, including a limitation on the number of years someone could hold onto the rights to a technology innovation, but given the value of our major technology companies—Apple, Google, Microsoft—such changes are likely to draw fierce opposition from people with extremely deep pockets.