Isn't About Time To Kill the Patent System Altogether?

August 25, 2012

In 1793 Eli Whitney invented the first fully mechanical cotton gin and patented it soon after. It didn't take long for people to copy it left and right and he tried to sue them but only a later change in the law allowed him to finally win. By then the patent had nearly expired and he got little money out of it.

To add insult to injury, the success of his invention led to a big increase in slavery and thus to the Civil War in the US.

What we have today is a patent system that protects no one and profits no one except for patent attorneys. Companies collect patents by the truckload for the sole reason to defend themselves in future patent wars. Patent trolls sue everyone with money in the hope of a quick annoyance payday. Today there are patents on everything from colors to parts of your body. Soon no one will be able to do anything without asking a lawyer first and saving up money to pay all his buddies.

What does this do for society? In end, nothing. Sure Apple won a lawsuit against Samsung, mostly because the Samsung executives saw no way to compete except to copy (and then stupidly documented everything) instead of taking a long approach to invention. Even though I have been an Apple customer since 1979 and even worked there briefly during the not-Steve era, I still think the whole patent lawsuit idea is something that needs to die.

About 15 years ago I did a little patent research and came upon a category which included all the patents for mice; not the fuzzy critters but the humble computer mouse. I couldn't believe all the minor variations that were patented. There might have been hundreds. It was ludicrous.

I once joked that IBM patented its employees lunch conversations. Somehow that joke is too tame today; everything is patented. I don't doubt that some aspect of patenting is patented. People patent genes. A single mouse click is patented. I sometimes worry that every line of code I write is covered by someone's patent; if they only could see them, I would live in a courtroom forever.

The idea behind a patent is to protect someone's invention and give them some time to profit before competitors are allowed to do something similar. A lovely ideal which didn't work for Eli Whitney and for sure does not work today. Little companies can patent something and then a big company will steal it anyway; they have tons of fat lawyers who can push the little company around and if need be delay any trial until the patent expires. Big companies can win patent suits because they have the same ton of fat lawyers and millions of patents to clobber their competitor with. It's an arms race where the one with the biggest legal army and patent ammo will surely defeat the any enemy.

Add to that the trolls who lurk in the shadows looking to shake down some unsuspecting victim like techno gangsters. Pay us now or pay millions to the lawyers later. Who needs drugs and prostitution when you can just use double spaced paper and a court fee?

The Patent office in the US (and likely other countries as well) is years behind in granting patents, does not have the budget to hire enough experts, and is unlikely to ever catch up with the pace of technology and the output of the patent cannon system. Today even searching for existing patents and other evidence that might invalidate a patent application is virtually impossible and every day gets more and more overwhelming. The problem will only get worse.

So why bother? Why even have patents if all they do is complicate modern life and enrich lawyers? I say dump them all in the toilet (the patents, though the lawyers might work too). There is no value left to society anymore. The cute ideal of the lone inventor getting rich off a useful idea is long gone, if it ever really existed. Today it's a big company game where little people don't matter anyway. Even for the big companies it's expensive to buy and file patents, hire massive legal staffs and other law firms and experts, and deal with a constant flow of filing and defending.

It's a game no one wins in the end, except for the legal profiteers. Instead of working on making better products, building on better ideas, moving technology and other areas forward we pay the cost of the pathetic patent paranoia.

The Patent system is dated, costly and worthless. It's time the whole concept dies a quick death. Like the War on Drugs it only costs more and more money with less and less improvement to society over time. People might mourn the ideal of the lonely inventor cashing in on a good idea but I believe it's always been a myth and should be put to rest.

Patents must die and die soon before we find ourselves patented out of existence.

[Yes the title is missing a word]