An important lesson for American innovation: will we listen?

NTP Inc. (wiki - they don't have a website) "holds a number of patents but doesn't manufacture any products" according to the Wall Street Journal ( And it has filed suite against Apple, Google, HTC, LG, Microsoft and Motorola over wireless email. Blackberry has already settled a similar case with NTP for $612.5 million.

With the priviso that I know only as much about this case as was reported in the WSJ, I'd say we have something to learn. When I say "we" I mean "congress" and when I say "lesson" I mean "patent reform".

In the beginning, an artisan could make money by selling products. This was fine as long as the product was difficult to make: there was no point in protecting the design when the method of manufacture was the barrier-to-entry for competitors.

Over time, the ability to manufacture or copy a device has become easier and easier. Artisans, now called engineers, were less encouraged to innovate because, at best, they would only be able to produce a few of the items before the design was copied.

And so the patent system was invented to protect intellectual property independent of the specific devices. It accomplishes this by protecting the idea behind the design of a product. If a product is created with the same backing idea as another, then it's fair game for a lawsuit.

What's happening now is that people are taking out patents on ideas they do not intend to develop into products. They then attack the companies that turn the idea (which is almost always independantly derived) into an economically viable product. This creates a society which rewards documenting ideas, and badly punishes executing an idea. So, if we want to live in a world of thumb-twiddlers, by all means, carry on.

It seems to be happening more with software patents, but I'm sure it's happened during the entire history of the patent system. It's hard for me to imagine that the patent system doesn't have some provision limiting remedies to those who never bother to turn an idea into a product, viable or not.

The other problem with the system is complexity. Patent law is complex. Proving prior art is notoriously complex. Patent's should be simpler to get, to verify, and to litigate over. The IP system in this country needs a serious overhaul.

Why am I concerned about it? I'm an independant inventor of no great note. The entities most at risk are those with deep pockets: companies like the defendants in the NTP Inc. lawsuit. If anything I'm more likely to benefit from patent trolling myself!

This might sound naive, but I'm against patent trolling because it's bad for society. Yes, I want to invent things and get paid for it (and get paid handsomely!). But I want to do it fairly: by getting a patent, and either developing it or shopping around for licensees. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I filed a patent and sat on it for a few years until someone else came up with the same idea and made millions, and then I come out of the woodwork with a lawsuit. "Ha!" I say, "I have a patent on that!"

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