When Will Patent Squatting Become Monopolistic?

Samsung Galaxy S

Samsung Galaxy S

Every week we hear either a patent that Apple applied for, then the next week it’s a story on how Apple is suing another company for their patents. Some of these patents are pretty ridiculous.  Some of it feels more like a squatting practice. So when will patent squatting become more a monopolistic practice for a company like Apple?

Owning a patent is pretty easy. You create something, then go to the patent office, make sure no one else has something similar and patent it. If someone is watching your patent, they can make changes and patent it for themselves.

Case in point: I remember a story about a little girl that invented the clip for your sunglasses onto a visor. A patent was issued for a metal clip, but someone found it and changed the design, using plastic. The end result was the little girl was out millions.

Then there is the option of wading through all the patents, find something that doesn’t have one and patent it. I remember when someone found that pnumatic tires were not patented (or the patent expired), therefore applied.

This week, it’s Apple going after Samsung Galaxy devices. More specifically, the look and feel of the Samsung devices are too close to Apple’s. They are even complaining the packaging is too close to Apple’s.

While I understand looking too close in packaging, I don’t understand on looking in devices. In some cases, it might actually be the opposite.

After all, Samsung put out a white tablet before Apple did.

Still, let’s look at the Galaxy line. The only thing that looks “Apple-ly” is the top of the device. The Galaxy S has a square button and a contoured design in the back. The bottom “call” buttons look a little like an iPhone’s. Yet, the icons are squared – not rounded like iPhone.

Nitpicking on patents sometimes seems to be really petty. There are some cases where it’s important, but a patent on how you can unlock a phone using a graphic? A visual experience when flipping through songs?

When does it become too much? Can it become a monopolistic practice? I am not a patent lawyer, but if Apple has patent complaints on each mobile device, Apple could work out a deal with the companies, then get a percentage of any device you end up buying.

When does it become a non-Apple patent? How much of a “Graphical experience” must I change to be able to unlock a phone?

A few months ago we learned about certain patents in Android that Apple owned. It also risked certain open-source programs because of functions that were under the microscope.

Can a patent become open-source?

So if I put together a new mobile device, I could easily be hit with an infringement if my look and feel of anything matches that of others. It’s not just Apple, either.

One of the positive points to HP buying WebOS last year was they obtained not only the patents by Palm, but also by all the companies that Palm ended up consuming (Handspring, for example). They are older patents, but definitely cases could be made.

Then you have the opposite – Microsoft vs. i4i. Microsoft wants to make the challenge process more complex. If the challenger doesn’t have their paperwork in order, they could easily loose. In i4i’s case, they sold the product for 4 years before applying. That could invalidate the patent simply because of it’s prior use and saturation in the marketplace. After all, you cannot throw out seeds out of a plane, then lay claim to all the plants that are grown.

Back to Samsung – Apple. Once again, I see some things that Samsung should change to not mimic the iconic iPhone. With these software changes, the phone looks different. Apple holds a lot of cards in mobile devices. No different than Microsoft holds in Windows, IBM holds in servers and Facebook holds in social networking.

Let’s just hope that these lawsuits don’t hold off a company that makes the next big thing in technology.

 

The RIAA Is Throwing Away Money

Recently documents came into the public realm that show some of the RIAA’s financial dealings in 2008.  Apparently they have decided that, like their credibility, they need to throw away their money as well.  I am referring to files recently released by P2Pnet that show:

The RIAA paid Holmes Roberts & Owen $9,364,901 in 2008, Jenner & Block more than $7,000,000, and Cravath Swain & Moore $1.25 million, to pursue its “copyright infringement” claims, in order to recover a mere $391,000. [ps there were many other law firms feeding at the trough too; these were just the ones listed among the top 5 independent contractors.]

Wow, talk about a bad return on investment.  It looks as though, not only is it not the artists getting rich off of the RIAA lawsuits, but even the RIAA isn’t getting rich off of the RIAA lawsuits!  As always though, the lawyers are profiting handsomely.

If you don’t want to do the math, that’s $17.6 million plus spent to gain back $391,000.  Although no documents exist (that can be found in public) showing how much of this $391,000 went to the artists, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that it was little or none.

The math gets no better if you look at previous years.  In fact, it gets laughably worse.  Over the the three year period of 2006-2008 the total legal fees paid out by the RIAA is a staggering $64,000,000 to get back $1,361,000.

More bad news for the RIAA recently surfaced as well, in the form of former Pink Floyd manager Peter Jenner.  Jenner has been speaking out about filesharing being, more or less, unstoppable and not really a problem, saying, instead, that the music industry needs to find a way to take advantage of it.

While I, in no way, condone stealing intellectual property, I also have thought for a long time that the industry is out of control and that suing fans is no way to fix their outdated business model.  Instead of trying to cling to their antiquated ways, the music industry needs to move ahead and look, as Jenner said, into ways of taking advantage of modern technology.  They took a baby-step when they dropped DRM, but now it’s time for them to learn to walk and then run.  And maybe it’s also time for them to drop, and disavow, the RIAA.