Why Hardware Patent Trolls May Be The Next Big Problem

from the they're-coming... dept

There's been plenty of talk about software patents, and tons of discussions from people suggesting that perhaps the "solution" to problems with the patent system are to simply carve out software (and business method) patents, and make those unpatentable. There are plenty of reasonable arguments for why "software" should not be patentable (I tend to find the arguments that you can't patent math, and that software is really math, the most compelling). However, I'd like to argue that while software patents are a large part of the problem, focusing solely on carving out software patents does not address the real problems of the patent system -- and, in fact, could serve to paper over the real problem by solving for a "symptom" (i.e., an awful lot of "software" patent trolling cases).

I do think that the problems with patents may appear to be more pronounced with software, in part because today's software patents really are broadly claiming functions, when they're supposed to be claiming specific methods. Also, given the fact that most people in the software world didn't even believe you could really patent software (until the State Street case), it meant you had very few "software" patents on the books for common things. This allowed people to get patents on things and claim, incorrectly, that there was no prior art, even if these things had been done for years. Add all of this together and you have the perfect recipe for a lot of trolling.

However, there are reasons to be worried that patent trolling is likely to increase on the hardware side as well. And, if we're serious about fixing the patent system, focusing solely on software patents is a dangerous path. It's a way to fight the symptoms, not the disease -- and, in doing so, it would allow policymakers to claim that they had fixed the problem, leaving significant problems in the underlying system in place.

We recently noted that economics Nobel Prize winner, Eric Maskin, told the NY Times that in industries that have "highly sequential innovation," that it "may be better for society to scrap patents altogether." And that applies increasingly to hardware inventions as well. While, traditionally, hardware inventions involved significantly more R&D and capital expenditure to make them possible, that's less and less the case today. Hardware production is becoming increasingly lean as well. There are a growing number of fabrication facilities that will help you make pretty much whatever you want, and prices are getting more reasonable while speed and quality are improving. Combine that with the rise of 3D printing and many (though certainly not all) types of hardware projects can become "lean" like a typical software company's projects.

Add to that one other key component: the rise of crowdfunding. One thing that we've noticed about patent trolling in the software field is that the lawsuits seems to come right after your company gets a lot of attention. And... there's been an influx of high profile "hardware startups" that have made their debut via things like Kickstarter. Many of the most successful crowdfunding projects have come from design/hardware firms -- opening them up to accusations by trolls. And, just like software startups who ignore trying to patent their own work, these design/hardware firms often do the same.

In a recent interview on Jerry Brito's Surprisingly Free podcast, Dan Provost, the guy behind two very successful design/hardware Kickstarter campaigns, talks about why his "accidental" startup didn't bother to file for patents, noting that it was just too expensive and the benefit of a patent on their products was minimal. At the same time, however, he did admit that they had already seen copycats of their two key products (the Glif iPhone mounting system and the Cosmonaut tablet stylus -- which I have and use all the time), but that it hadn't really impacted their business. I'd actually argue that Provost downplays some of the reasoning here. People who bought into Studio Neat's successful Kickstarter projects didn't just do so because they wanted to get the products in question (though that is a part of it), but also because they wanted to support Dan and his partner, Tom Gerhardt, in coming up with more awesome design products. When you see a copycat to a product you support via crowdfunding, people seem to rally around the original, rather than rush to the copycat.

It seems like basic social mores support the originator, rather than the pure copycat.

But that won't stop patent trolls from entering the space, and looking for "weapons" that they can use to effectively set up a patent tax on hardware innovations as well. Especially as we see more of these kinds of lean hardware startups, it seems inevitable that patent trolls will increasingly enter the space with broad patents designed to let lawyers cash in on the success of true innovators. So instead of just papering over the problems by carving out "software patents," how about we look closely at the real problems with the patent system and look to come up with real solutions that apply across the board. That means things like an independent invention defense, a better system for determining obviousness, actually getting input from those skilled in the art and (finally) stop all patent appeals cases from going through a single court that is subject to judicial capture by the patent bar.

Otherwise, we're just going to have to go back in a few years and deal with another bunch of patent trolling problems in hardware as well.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Oct 2012 @ 10:32am

    The line between hardware and software is often very blurry.

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