You know the phrase "success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan?" Apparently, that's absolutely true when it comes to the patent system as well. We've been noting plenty of stories about how companies and patents seem to come out of the woodwork well after a technology has been called a success, claiming that their patents somehow cover the specific technology. With the recent story of Microsoft potentially owing $1.5 billion to Lucent over certain patents that Lucent claims covers MP3 technologies, the NY Times has decided to look at the long list of companies claiming to hold a patent on some element of MP3 systems. It does a wonderful job highlighting some of the problems with the patent system. Beyond so many different patent holders showing up so late in the game to demand payment, it also shows how little each of these patents actually mattered. It's not the single inventions that mattered, but the ability to package up everything that is an MP3 and bring it to a market that had demand for it. Yet, once you get all the patent holders asking for their cut, you end up with something that just isn't financially worthwhile any more. It may drive people to use other technologies instead, but it's hard to see how the patents did much to encourage innovation here. It seems like it's only created a vehicle for a bunch of companies to demand payment well after the fact.
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