Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Patently Stupid

I'm not a supporter of software patents; many companies have been granted a patent for a vague concept or idea, which is then used to bring legal cases against companies who may have inadvertently violated it. Take Apple's recently granted ICT ruling against HTC, in particular the "linkify" functionality. The patent in question covers "a system and method for performing an action on a structure in computer-generated data".

Now, I believe there are two things wrong with this patent. First, the vague nature of the functionality described. But, secondly, hasn't this functionality been present in phones for some time? I remember receiving an SMS on my old mobile phone (pre-smartphone), the device being able to recognise a telephone number in the message and being given the option to perform additional actions using it.

Despite the legal minefield surrounding software patents, I always thought that patents on hardware (computer, or otherwise) were fair game, until I read this article on ZDNet about the injunction Apple managed to win against Samsung, preventing sale of their Galaxy tablet.

Looking at the drawings submitted with the patent, I can't help but agree with the article; it looks as though Apple have tried to patent the tablet form factor itself! Now, given that there have been tablet PCs around long before the (very successful) iPad, surely that patent application should never have been accepted. However, further research around the case led me to this article describing the European Community Design. By submitting a vague Community Design, Apple were easily able to obtain an injunction against Samsung.

Fortunately, Samsung were able to overturn the decision (however, the device remains banned in Germany), but Apple have now managed to secure a ban on the Galaxy S phones being sold in Europe. I don't believe Apple are playing fairly and are simply trying to eliminate the competition through legal proceedings rather than with a superior product. I don't believe that anyone would mistakenly buy a Samsung tablet instead of an iPad if that's what they actually wanted.

Some people may side with Apple, citing a need for the company to protect their intellectual property and chastise me Apple is on the offensive when there are plenty of other companies holding their own patent battles. To bring a bit of balance to the post, here's an example where Apple is being sued for infringing an "instant-on" patent. I feel that this case is even worse, because the suing company, Operating Systems Solutions, appear to simply be a patent troll.

I realise that this topic has been covered before, and in far more depth than I have. However, I felt compelled to publish my opinion on the matter following the ban of Samsung's tablet. Patents were originally intended to help companies and individuals reap a reward for their inventions, but now I believe that they are having a negative effect on innovation as individuals and small companies don't have the budget to fight patent lawsuits. I do believe in being able to defend a product, or invention, but the current seems open to abuse and needs reform. I think a bit of healthy competition is good for consumers and that if companies spent leon court battles and more on R&D, we would have even better devices and products to choose from. However, it would appear the situation in the EU may deteriorate with the possible introduction of unitary patents.

Just to finish with a bit of humour, here's a Dilbert strip that I feel perfectly illustrates the current state of the system, which was published while I was composing this post: