Would 2010 Steve Jobs Sue 1996 (Or 1984) Steve Jobs Over Patents?

from the innovation-vs.-litigation dept

One of the things you discover in studying the history of patent use among many companies is that when they're young, they innovate. When they're old, they litigate. That is when they're growing and building cool stuff, they don't worry much about patents, but focus on building the coolest products they can to best serve the market. But when they get older, and entrenched, they don't innovate quite as much, but focus instead on trying to keep competitors out of the market. We highlighted this by showing Microsoft's changing views on patents, from Bill Gates' claim in 1991 that "the industry would be at a complete standstill" if companies had used patents in the PC software space early on, to Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith saying in 1997 that "software patents and other intellectual property is essential to maintaining the incentives that encourage and underwrite technological breakthroughs."

Similarly, a year ago, we highlighted how Apple appeared to be going through a similar shift, quoting Steve Wozniak's claim about how the Apple II was "one of the most successful products of all time," in part because they didn't think about patents or copyright, and shared their ideas freely with everyone -- to Apple's Tim Cook's claims that "We will not stand for having our IP ripped off, and we will use every weapon at our disposal."

With Apple now going on the offensive against HTC (and, by proxy, Google's Android), it seems others are noticing not just an overall corporate shift, but the change in viewpoints of Steve Jobs. william points us to a Gizmodo post highlighting how Steve Jobs noted how Apple was "shameless about stealing great ideas." But in the announcement about the HTC lawsuit, he has a different perspective: "competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."

Strong words coming from the guy who admits he blatantly copied the graphical user interface he saw at Xerox PARC many years ago. Now, no one's going to claim that Apple and Jobs haven't been incredibly innovative over the past decade (or more). In fact, they've been amazingly innovative. But during that time, the company has mostly focused on continually innovating, rather than going on the offensive over patents. It seems like this new offensive move might be an early warning sign that the company no longer believes it can keep up its innovative pace.

Filed Under: patents, steve jobs
Companies: apple


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Mar 2010 @ 8:02am

    Re: Patents probably should be gotten rid of at this point.

    Jilocasin:

    You make some very excellent points. I will attempt to address a couple of them.

    With respect to the disclosure, you can forget about everything else. The disclosure was the entire purpose of a patent. Period. Yes, an inventor gets a limited monopoly, BUT, the limited monopoly was for the DISCLOSURE. Without an adequate disclosure, the patent is essentially void.

    One thing that many people forget is that with a disclosure that fails to meet the statute, a plaintiff will get nowhere. Indeed, many patent suits fail because the disclosure does not meet even a single requirement of the law. While it seems like the bar is not high from a layperson's perspective, in reality the bar is quite high. The vast majority of patent suits fall by the wayside and lack of proper enablement (i.e., the disclosure) is one of those reasons.

    You also made the statement that "If patents hadn't devolved into a government sponsored method of forcing money from completely unrelated people and companies, most of these patents would have never been granted."

    Fortunately, your statement is wrong. Consider that there are about 7.5 million patents in the U.S. Consider that there are about 2,700 patent litigations started each year.

    Though some litigations involve multiple patents, you will notice that the same patents are frequently involved in multiple litigations, so if you assume one unique patent per litigation, then about 46,000 patents are involved in some kind of litigation over a 17 year period, which is the average life of a patent that goes full term.

    Now, it is tougher to calculate how many patents are in force in that 17 year period because about 1/3 of all patents expire at the first maintenance fee, and about 60% or so are expired by the second maintenance fee. But if there was an average of about 2 million patents in force over that 17 year period (note that there have been 7.5 million US patents issued, and everything before about 5 million is currently expired), then the total percentage of patents that gets litigated is about 2.6%.

    So, if patents are truly, as you commented, "a government sponsored method of forcing money from completely unrelated people and companies," and that "most of these patents would have never been granted" had this not become the purpose of the system, then all I can say, based on the above calculations, that the system does not perform its task of being a "government sponsored method of forcing money from completely unrelated people and companies" very well.

    Indeed, there has been a marked downward trend in patent litigation awards, and evidence that the courts are planning further trends.

    Bottom line: If you are planning on getting rich by suing people for patent infringement, you better think again. The system is slowly moving back toward a position where the point was to encourage people to disclose knowledge so that after a limited property right all people could benefit from the knowledge. Excessive awards for patent infrginement was never a part of the system, and the "system" is adjusting itself to correct that abuse.

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