The year 2012 will go down in history as the Year of the Patent Wars. Since January, there have been so many patent lawsuits in the mobile phone market alone that it is nearly impossible to follow who is suing whom anymore. A synopsis of some of the most high-profile patent lawsuits this year goes something like this: Apple vs. HTC, Apple vs. Samsung, Apple vs. Motorola, Google vs. Oracle… among several others. The common denominator in many of the most recent cases has been Apple. As a matter of fact, a July 2012 article in Bloomberg reported that Apple is at the center of 60% of major mobile patent lawsuits today. In most of those cases, Apple is the one suing another company.
Check out this interesting twist, though. This past Wednesday, Apple announced the next generation of their mobile devices, including the iPhone 5. Although the iPhone 5 leaves much to be desired, Apple finally decided to include 4G LTE capability in their new device. The inclusion of LTE was expected by many; since the new iPad came out with LTE connectivity back in March, it would be natural for Apple to include LTE in their next iPhone. Smartphone manufacturers such as Samsung and HTC also expected the iPhone to pack LTE radios, and they both anticipated to file lawsuits against Apple if they did. When the iPhone 5 debuted on Wednesday, they both announced they will be doing exactly that. HTC was the first vendor to introduce an LTE smartphone, and Samsung’s devices are wildly popular around the world as well. Both manufacturers own hundreds of LTE-related patents, and they seem determined to identify one or more that Apple is infringing upon. Their ultimate goal is to completely block the sale of the iPhone 5 in the U.S. and in Europe.
In my opinion, the patent system is completely broken. In the USA, patents exist “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” These exclusive rights are valid for at least 20 years from the first filing date of the patent. The problem with the current patent system is that the 20-year term for exclusivity is actually preventing the progress of science and technology. In a world where technological innovation is happening at an alarming pace, a 20-year term for a patent can practically outlive a technology’s useful life. Maybe we have reached the point where it would be worth re-examining the length that patents should be valid.
The original intent of a patent was to protect an inventor’s intellectual property for a certain period of time. This was done so that the inventor had time to commercialize his idea, establish himself as the first person in the market, and build a business before competitors had access to his product. Today, the patent system is accomplishing only two things: first, it is preventing companies and individuals from further developing technologies that they do not own the patents for, and second, it is causing companies to spend millions of dollars on lawsuits over attempts to popularize a technology.
Hopefully, the courts will be able to help settle the ongoing arguments between Apple and seemingly every smartphone manufacturer, and instead settle on cross-licensing deals. The patent owners will still be able to make money on licensing fees, customers will be given a choice in an open market, and manufacturers will be allowed to continue to advance and popularize new technologies without worrying about endless lawsuits.