We've been noticing that the mainstream press has really been speaking up about the broken patent system lately. It was mostly kicked off by the excellent This American Life
story about just how broken our patent system is, and that seems to have thrown open the floodgates. So, suddenly an issue that was generally discussed mainly by entrepreneurs and geeks was suddenly showing up all over the place. Last week we noticed stories in both the NY Times
and the Economist
calling out the dreadful problems of the patent system.
And now we've got two more mainstream publications going further down that road. First up, is The Guardian, which focuses mainly on software patents in explaining how the system is really broken
and wondering why the government isn't fixing anything:
Patents were supposed to protect innovation. Now they risk throttling it. Such acquisitions may drag technology companies ever further from their original core competences. Academic research by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society has found that software patents have provided no net benefit to the software industry, let alone to society as a whole. Tragically, because so many corporations which formerly opposed software patents have now joined the system, an effective solution will be harder to find. Once again consumers are pitted against the corporations. Where are the regulators when they are needed?
A much bigger deal, however, is that the Washington Post has a story by Pulitzer-prize winning business and economics columnist Steven Pearlstein, explaining how the patent system is completely broken
and the patent reform going through Congress right now won't fix the real problems (he's actually a bit generous in thinking it will fix some of the problems). The piece is a giant condemnation of a broken patent system:
Silly me. I thought the purpose of patents was to spur innovation by giving people who invent something the exclusive use of their innovation for a limited time.
There’s still some of that. But out in Silicon Valley, patents have become the competitive weapon of choice, used by high-tech giants to bludgeon rivals and crush upstarts.
It turns out that the more patents you have, the more likely it is that you can extort exorbitant royalties from people who might have easily come up with the same idea or the same feature that you did but never thought to patent it. And the more patents you have, the more your competitor wants so he can retaliate with a patent suit of his own, claiming that it was you who stole the ideas from him.
In other words, it’s an arms race to buy as many patents as possible, bidding up the price of patents without anyone gaining a permanent competitive advantage. Like all such races, this one involves a huge waste of time, talent and capital, not only in the race to buy patents but in trying to win a patent on every half-baked notion that anyone thinks up.
Instead of spurring innovation and entrepreneurship, patents are being used by companies, venture capitalists and their cynical lawyers to stifle and discourage them.
Pearlstein is someone that folks in DC actually read, which means that our elected officials are hopefully reading this. Will it make some in Congress finally wake up and realize that the patent system is really, really broken, and the patent reform bill they're discussing does little to address the real problems? It would be nice, but it seems unlikely.