The Old Joining Dots Blog

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09 July 2006

No patent no fee

I want to throw a ping pong ball at the television whenever one of those hideous adverts comes on the screen. They go along the lines:

  • Have you recently slipped on a banana skin carelessly left on the floor at work and stubbed your toe against an open door that should have been closed...
  • Were you forced up a two-foot high ladder without putting on a safety helmet, back protector, knee pads, armour-plated suit and with no safety net in place...
  • Was your new haircut ruined by a downpour the weather forecast failed to predict..
"Well we can help you get the compensation you deserve. No win no fee."

Laws were created to define boundaries for behaviour and those who chose to ignore them were supposed to be punished. The trouble with civilian cases was always the cost of the trial - lawyers and courts rarely come cheap - favouring those with the money rather than those with a good case. But then some bright spark came up with the idea of 'No Win No Fee', making lawyers affordable to all (and richer in the process...) And ignited a compensation culture with cases now challenging every last loop hole of the law to extract money or avoid punishment. The net result: the cost of insurance to do just about anything has now increased to ridiculous levels and we all have to pay the price.

What's all this got to do with patents? It's an expensive process to apply for a patent, favouring the commercial business over the individual with a good idea, but the resulting licensing fees can be very lucrative - sound familiar? I'm just waiting for the day when I see the following advert:

"Have you ever woke up in the morning with an idea? Have you ever seen a new product on the market that you thought of years before but didn't know what to do about it? Well we'll submit your patent application on a 'No Patent No Fee' basis and you can gain the license fees you deserve."

I truly admire those who have the courage to invent without protection and let us all benefit from and build on their creativity. But I have tried to be a supporter of patent law. I agree with the principle - providing a mechanism that enables inventors to profit from their efforts for a limited period of time can create a virtuous circle that encourages further invention.

But.

We are increasingly seeing examples where people are exploiting the system. If it's not someone challenging who owns (and should be compensated for) the hyperlink or smiley face, it's examples like the following:

Friendster wins patent (Red Herring article, but Google for lots of other thoughts and opinions on this one...)

It appears that Friendster has been awarded a patent for a "system, method, and apparatus for connecting users in an online computer system based on their relationships within social networks."

Now, if the patent describes a specific system, method and apparatus for creating a social network, that Friendster have gone to the effort to design, build and test, then fair enough (I suppose). But if the patent refers to the general system, method and apparatus for building social networks, all of which have been described for years, then it's pants. And pants are not a good thing in this particular paragraph.

Nokia phone doubles as metal detector (Yahoo News article)

It appears that Nokia has been awarded a patent for fitting an induction coil to a mobile phone. The primary purpose is to provide a clearer signal for people with hearing difficulties. It appears that it can also double up as a metal detector.

So what does this mean? Have Nokia invented a specific unique but copiable design for attaching an induction coil to a mobile phone (in which case, fair enough), or does the patent cover the general idea? If it is the latter, I wonder who owns the patent for induction coils fitted to churches and post office counters and every other system that makes use of them today or in the future. Hey, you never know when the patent for fitting an induction coil to a space station orbiting around Jupiter might come in handy...

This is the grey area of patents - protecting specific unique and original inventions versus general theories, obvious extensions and after thoughts. In a 'no win no fee' world, grey areas will be exploited to the point where nobody wins in the end.