Two things happened to me this week, both related to patents, which make my heart heavy. We have become such a litigious industry that it is and will probably continue to stifle innovation. Alternatively it could be a death knell to those who choose to adopt such protective practices.
First, let me talk about one of my favorite programs – Audacity. This is an audio editing package developed by a set of volunteers under the SourceForge banner. It is great and does everything I need in terms of audio editing and so much more. I recently downloaded a new version of the software and when I attempted to load in the audio from the recording device I have been using for interviews for many years, I got the following message “Audacity cannot open this type of file due to patent restrictions. You need to convert it to a supported audio format, such as WAV or AIFF”. The format in question is WMA. Yes – you can get a plugin that will do the dirty work for you, but it should not be necessary. I shall make sure that when I need to buy a new recorder that it is not using WMA.
The second thing was a news story that I reported in my weekly roundup.
Rambus has transferred a portfolio of patent assets covering display technologies to a subsidiary of Acacia Research Corporation, a patent licensing company. As part of this transaction, Rambus received an initial upfront payment and is expected to receive subsequent payments. Specific terms of the transaction are confidential.
Now, I can understand Rambus wanting to monetize their patent portfolio, especially in areas which are not their core competence, but Acacia Research Corporation is basically a patent troll. These are the very companies that we despised such a short time ago. The ridiculously high values that have been placed on patent portfolios recently shows that attempting to exclude your competitors may have become more important than innovation.
Does this help the companies in the long term? I don’t think so. If every company does it and every company then has to license patents, then all that has been accomplished is moving some income into the corporate legal departments. I know they need to justify their existence, but unfortunately, much of the money then goes into the hands of the lawyers and that money never comes back into the industry. It is a net drain from the industry. I do remember talking to some companies who boasted that their legal department was profitable!
Does this help consumers? Clearly not. It means that products do not contain the features we want some of the time or we will have to pay higher prices to support the lawyers.
The big problem here is the patent system itself. It is so cheap and easy to get crazy patents, as I have demonstrated many times in this column, and it is cheaper and easier a lot of the time for a company to just pay an unnecessary license fee rather than show the patent office that the patent should never have been issued in the first place. Unfortunately, doing this only means more money in the hands of the lawyers.
When will these companies start trying to fix the system rather than breaking it even further and when will they rely on their innovation rather than exclusionary tactics. The rate of innovation is so fast that a company that decides to rest on their laurels is probably already heading out of the leading spot in their respective industry.
What say you? Should the industry start developing tools to automate the work of lawyers – maybe CAL (Computer Aided Lawyer) and thus keep the money in the industry or should we develop more patents, as is being attempted at the moment, to stop patent trolls and to restrict what lawyers can do – and of course, who would license their litigation patents to a lawyer!Brian Bailey
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