Saturday, August 25, 2012

Thought Police

Yesterday I watched a live blog of the reading of the trial verdict in Apple v Samsung. The trial was complex, and the jury had to break down each patent by device. In the end, Apple won the day. They didn't get everything they wanted, but in contrast, Samsung got nothing.

I'm sure there will be an appeal, and this whole mess will drag on for another year or so, but it certainly says a lot about the patent system in this country. After deciding if Samsung had violated Apple's patents, the jury had to answer the question of if they thought those patents were actually valid. In all cases they said 'yes'. By the same token they had to answer if Apple violated patents, and even though they said Apple did NOT violate Samsung's patents, they also upheld Samsung's patents as well.

My personal assessment of all of this is that you had a jury full of regular people, who frankly, could probably have cared less about the mountains of patent law that was presented to them. They saw the stunning visuals of an iPhone next to a Galaxy S, and as I pointed out in an earlier blog, they saw the blatant copying that had taken place, and made an easy decision. The fact that they reached a verdict on a Friday also meant that they were probably quite tired of the whole trial and just wanted to go home for the weekend.

So where does this leave patent law? Even though I think the jury made the correct decision about Samsung copying Apple, I do wonder if we've ended up in a worse place for technology. Many of the technology patents that were disputed in this trial were about "how" something behaves. The way a screen rubber bands when you pull down on it, for example. At a certain point, you have to question if there's a ton of value is securing simple "ideas" like this from duplication.

But yet the flip side to the argument is that if a programmer comes up with a really cool way to do something, shouldn't they get the reward of being the first to financially benefit from it? So perhaps there's a middle ground. Maybe we need a different type of patent system that still can protect creative ideas, but doesn't brazenly lock them down for 20 years.

So here's my simple contribution to the who patent discussion. Let's let technology "idea" patents continue, but let's limit the term on them to 2-3 years. If a company is going to make a windfall on a particular idea, it's going to be as soon as the product hits the market. Let's allow them make their profit,  and then free the idea to all the people who want to copy it after it's 'old hat'.

Maybe it's a silly idea, and things probably won't be changing in our patent system any time soon, but maybe if we're open to some new thoughts and ideas, future generations will take the next step at making things better for innovators as well as people who benefit from cool ideas. Hmm... maybe I should patent my silly 'idea' before it's too late....