Innovation At Work: Ma Bell Wants Apple To Pay Up For Video Patents

from the lawyers-getting-richer dept

When we talk about "patent trolls" and the like, people sometimes accuse of supporting big companies over small ones -- as it's often small companies that play patent troll roles. However, that's not always true. Big companies can be just as bad with patents as small ones. AT&T has now decided to go after Apple for patents it claims it owns concerning MPEG-4 video compression (found via Slashdot). This case highlights a number of the things that are problematic about patents right now. AT&T is obviously within their legal right to take this action -- but the point is that it does little to encourage innovation, and plenty to hinder it. First, MPEG-4 is part of a standard that already has a patent licensing body, that tries to round up all of the associated patents, with agreements to license them at reasonable and non-discriminatory rates (in other words, open to everyone who pays the rate). AT&T chose to stay out of that -- which, again, is their choice. However, it's becoming all too common for companies to do this. They believe they have patents related to standards, and then sit out until the standard has become adopted -- and then swoop in and try to start charging everyone. All this does is make the process of standardization much more difficult. Others learn not to include their patents in standards, but rather to wait and see how they can disrupt things later. The companies that actually then use the standard to innovate get burned. Even if the patent is valid, AT&T should go after those who included the technology in the standard -- not Apple. If the point of allowing lawsuits over patents is to protect companies from having their ideas unfairly "stolen" then, it would seem like there should be some evidence that the infringing company actually took the idea from the patent. Considering that Apple is using a well known standard, it's quite unlikely that they went through AT&T's patents and used them to decide what video technology to use. While it's obviously within AT&T's legal right to do this (and, perhaps, short term financial best interest), it highlights how the patent system is simply being used to set up tollbooths, not encourage innovation.

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  • identicon
    Dosquatch, 10 Feb 2006 @ 9:49am

    The problem with software patents

    (CAUTION: by way of making a point, gross oversimplifications are to follow)

    Patents are meant to protect an inventor of things from other parties seeking to profit on the back of his work. To the extent that the inventor's novel widget is a physical manifestation of an idea, I suppose patents cover ideas. However, it's not (supposed to be) enough to write about the idea - that is protectable by copyright. It is in the making of a thing that patent law is most different. Or, is supposed to be.

    That said, the thing is patentable, but using the thing in the intended way is not.

    That is, the calculator may be patentable. The use of the calculator to find the solution to "713+95" is not. That is using the patented thing for what it was intended. Including the calculator in a larger creation, though, that is novel and new may yield a new thing that is itself patentable.

    I hear you. You're saying, "But, but... software is kind of a "thing", isn't it? It's making something novel and new, isn't it?"

    NO! No, no, no. I mean, yes, novel and new, but... hold on, next example.

    Say you're a company that makes a marvelous all-singing, all-dancing thing. It may very well be patentable. Now, let's assume that some smartass consumer comes along and does something novel, inventive, and more than a little funny with your thing. Is this novel use patentable? No, because in the end, it's still all-singing, all-dancing, so it's still being used in the intended way. Maybe not specifically the way YOU intended, but the net result is the same.

    So, to, with computers. My PC is a box of oddly shaped metal and plastic widgets that is intended to parse a set of instructions. It does this. It may be patented in some way or other. No matter what operating system or software packages I run, the nature of the box on my desk does not change. Not when I run Windows. Not when I run Linux. Not when I use it as a server. Not when I watch a DVD. I can and do all of these things, and yet, in the end, there it sits, a box of metal and plastic widgets.

    So I say to you and your "patented" algorithm, "Bite me." Your software, no matter how novel or interesting, is NOT patentable, because in the end, you are using the computer in the manner intended. You are feeding it a set of instructions to parse. And without the computer, your CD of instructions is about as useful as a cheap coaster.

    The day you ship me a CD that changes the nature of my computer - say, give it sentience - we'll talk about a patent I'll support. not before.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2006 @ 10:04am

      Re: The problem with software patents

      This is just wrong. Patents protect new uses of old things all the time, like a new use of a previously known pharmaceutical. You can make the pharmaceutical, but you don't infringe the patent until you use it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Dosquatch, 10 Feb 2006 @ 10:45am

        Re: The problem with software patents

        [...] like a new use of a previously known pharmaceutical.

        This is not the same thing at all. In this case, it is the pharmaceutical that is patented, not the treatment of the disease. I am at liberty to come up with another formulary that also treats bird flu, and your patented pill and mine don't bear on each other at all.

        Not so with software patents. The way they are implemented, even when I lay down new code character for character, I'm infringing just for supporting "file format X", unless I pay license fees.

        Wherein is innovation supported by requiring me to pay someone else licensing fees in order to use my own original work?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          chosel, 10 Feb 2006 @ 12:47pm

          Re: The problem with software patents

          No, you don't seem to get the point. The pharmaceutical may be patented, and the use may be patented seperately. There would then be a blocking patent. Processes have been patented for a long time. There is nothing in the law that says patents are limited to things.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Dosquatch, 10 Feb 2006 @ 2:07pm

            Re: The problem with software patents

            The pharmaceutical may be patented, and the use may be patented seperately. There would then be a blocking patent.

            Limited. Otherwise, given Viagra, why then Cialis? Both treat ED.

            And I'm not missing the point. I'm intentionally ignoring the point in order to make my own. Which is, what is, is stupid.

            As stupid as, say, patenting the addition of two specific numbers on a calculator and charging a licensing fee every time somebody runs that particular calculation.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2006 @ 9:51pm

      Re: The problem with software patents

      A Very Well stated argument.

      And it's simple enough for everyone but a software engineer to understand.

      I agree!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Irony, 10 Feb 2006 @ 10:09am

    Didn't Apple Sue Microsoft for Xerox Inventions

    Xerox invented the window and menu UI
    Apple then acted like they invented it
    Oh the Irony...
    Not saying this is right or wrong, just lots of Karma someplace.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2006 @ 10:21am

    No Subject Given

    why didnt they speak up 10 years ago..

    ive said it before ill say it again, its a mine field! even companies like apple which are LICENSING the stuff can still get burned by some other company all together thats just been waiting and waiting for as many victums as possible

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    bad apple, 10 Feb 2006 @ 10:23am

    patent's after the fact

    I wonder if the (insert hamberger format from well known fast food chain)is patented. If not I can patent it and charge everyone who has had one a substantial fee for having used my patent then I'll go after the fast food chain.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael "TheZorch" haney, 10 Feb 2006 @ 10:39am

    If they only used Ogg Vorbis!

    If more people, including Apple, embrassed Ogg Vorbis the world would be a happier place.

    It's an open source, generalized audio/video compression standard which I found to be very good at producing high quality audio files that sound every bit as good as high quality MP3s. Its not just for sound. There is a standard for video too and it can be used WITHOUT ROYALTIES!

    Why, because its open source, stupid!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Its me, 11 Feb 2006 @ 1:00am

    eh i hate apple

    Okay so i'm glad Apple is getting sued because Steve Jobs is too self-righteous and personally stupid. He really thinks this "If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts." http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html
    Your stupid Steve it would have come around eventually
    wouldn't it be great if the college sued him for just "dropping in on classes he wanted"
    lastly itunes... slowed my boot time from 45 seconds to a min.. that piece of horribly coded software...
    I hate it when rich people shun the poor for being poor while they sit on all their money and only give away enough for tax deductions

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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