Firstly, from the outset, let me be clear -- I am not a Patent nor Intellectual property expert, however I am your average guy on the street trying to understand the Patent minefield.

So let's start with the easy stuff.  A Patent is exclusive rights granted to an inventor acknowledging and protecting the invention (or process).  A Patent is typically granted by individual country for a specific period of time (20 years in the UK) covering the legal juristriction of the country.  That's my interpretation but here are a few others from Wikipedia, Dictionary.com and O.E.D.

You can immediately see the attraction here -- invent something, patent it, sell a license to others to use it.  Great!  There are tens of millions of patents in existent around the world protecting the good work of pioneers.

The problem, as I see it, is in the execution and more specifically the granting of a patent for something that is relatively vague or too generic.  The obvious one that springs to mind from recent news is US patent #7,996,328 granted  9 August 2001 to Google.  The essence of the patent is the definition of a process whereby an order is placed, a delivery date is calculated and an electronic notification is then sent to the recipient in advance of the order arriving.  Seriously!

Hands up anyone who thinks this is a new concept?  We have been doing it for years.  Google submitted the application in January 2007 citing current systems as being over-conservitie in their estimate of delivery dates.

And back to me, the average guy on the street -- how can this possibly be granted?  It's nothing new; there is no clear or unique process definition in the patent which makes it as radically different from others; who seriously thought this was a good use of tax payers money in reviewing this?  All these questions, and more will probably never be answered.

The above is only one example of madness.  The most famous patent fiascos was perhaps the British Telecom case -- they own a patent in the US describing the process of Hypertext linking (you know, that thing where we click on a link on a page and go to another page).  BT own(ed) the concept patent and tried to get busy making some cash in 2002.  Luckily a Judge saw sense, threw the claim out, and a lot of lawyers made a lot of money in the process.  The patent expired in 2006 -- phew!

Mobile phone companies are also very keen on patents, and quite rightly so -- however having a patent to press a button to make a call seems quite wild to me.  Every other day we read of one firm throwing a lawsuit at another claiming they are breaching some patent or another.  All the big names are at it -- Apple, Nokia, Blackberry to name but a few.  What is of no surprise is the value placed on these patents and the fact that a patent owner starts enforcing just when their market share is slipping.   Nokia sued Apple in 2009 for various infringements (just as Nokia's hold on the phone market started slipping).  Both sides settled out of court!

So perhaps when your business is failing, your patents are your assets.  Google just paid $12 billion for Motorola's patents.  They are clearly not interested in resurrecting the Razr mobile but they might be covering their proverbial by owning a number of early, and pioneering, patents.

Where does all this madness stop?  How to we apply common sense to a patent application process?  Can we truly protect the genius who comes up with the next big thing without stifling creativity and instilling fear in developers? (Imaging developing an online retail experience for someone, only to discover your hard work is about to be slapped with so many patents for processes or concepts that are so generic as to be every day)

Long live innovation!

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