Over the last year, there's been plenty of good news in the fight against the abuse of patents to stifle innovation. A bunch of court rulings have gone the right way, with the biggest being the Supreme Court's ruling
in the Alice v. CLS Bank
case, that has resulted in many courts invalidating patents
, the US Patent Office suddenly rejecting
more patents and a rapid decline
in patent lawsuits.
Based on that, you might think that we no longer need patent reform. But you'd be wrong. Patent trolls are regrouping and fighting back. Despite the big drop in patent lawsuits following the Alice ruling, patent trolls have come up with some new ideas, and have recently ramped up
the filing of new trolling lawsuits at a rapid pace. And there have even been a few victories. While the dollar amounts were relatively low (especially compared to what was asked for), a troll who claimed to have a patent over Bluetooth 2.0 (despite "inventing" it years after Bluetooth 2.0 was on the market) was awarded $15.7 million
, and the world's biggest patent troll, Intellectual Ventures actually won a case
against Symantec (but got "only" $17 million).
But, earlier this week, there was the big one. A pure patent troll, Smartflash, with a collection of vague and broad patents (US 7,334,720
, US 8,118,221
-- all for "data storage and access systems") has been awarded $532,900,000 from Apple
, despite everyone happily admitting that Apple came up with the idea on its own. Here's the East Texas (of course) court jury form:
And, yes, Apple could probably pay that off with the spare change falling off the edge of Tim Cook's desk, but that's not really the point. Rulings like this don't seem to create any value towards actual innovation. Smartflash once had a product, but it failed in the marketplace over a decade ago. Apple built a product that people actually wanted. Shouldn't we be rewarding the people who actually make the things people want
, rather than subsidizing failure by the successful?
Smartflash's lawyer told Ars Technica's Joe Mullin that this ruling is actually a "great example of why the patent system exists." Actually, it's a great example of how screwed up the patent system is. The lawyer also spewed this load of bullshit:
The thing about a patent is—let's say you have a university professor who spent two years researching something. It's irrelevant the effort that [an infringing company] spent to build it. It's the person who came up with it first. That's the way the Constitution, and the patent laws, are written. It's designed to cause people to spend money and time innovating. The patent office publishes it, so that advances the state of the art. In exchange for that, you get a property right.
That's also not how the Constitution is written, though it is (unfortunately) how patent laws are written. But
a way to get people to spend "money and time innovating" because the actual innovators here -- Apple -- had to pay out to the guy who failed in innovating. Being "first" isn't innovating. Building the product someone wants is.
Either way, Apple will appeal this ruling (and those other rulings are likely to be appealed as well). And in the last few months, CAFC has actually been shown to have gotten the message about problems with its previous interpretation of patent law. But, in the meantime, we still need serious patent reform.