Ah, patents – the never-ending scourge of the technology industry. Whether wielded by companies who don’t actually make any products, or large corporations who abuse them because they can’t compete in the market place or because they’re simply jerks, they do the industry a huge disservice and are simply plain dangerous. According to The Wall Street Journal (circumvention link), president Obama is about to take several executive actions to address patent trolls – which may seem like a good idea, but I am very worried that all this will do is strengthen the positions of notorious patent system abusers such as Apple and Microsoft.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the measures Obama intends to take are aimed squarely at patent holding companies, which most of us refer to as patent trolls. We all know them – they amass patents, don’t make any products, and then sue others. This is all perfectly legal, which is also what those who support the system always bring up. The WSJ article is a little light on details about what, exactly, Obama intends to do, but they do say this:
To help deter questionable lawsuits, the Obama administration plans to, among other things, direct the Patent and Trademark Office to start a rule-making process aimed at requiring patent holders to disclose the owner of a patent, according to senior Obama administration officials. Businesses sometimes are sued by shell companies and don’t always know who actually owns the patent they are being accused of infringing, and whether the firm holds other relevant patents.
In addition, the president plans to ask Congress to pass legislation that would allow sanctions on litigants who file lawsuits deemed abusive by courts, officials said.
Right from the very moment I read the Obama administration was going to issue executive orders, thousands of alarm bells went nuts inside my head, but after reading the above paragraphs, I knew for certain my suspicions were right. You see, the problem with addressing patent trolls and limiting their powers is that inadvertently, you’ll also be limiting the power of legitimate small companies that own patents. Small companies that might compete with large companies who abuse patents shamelessly, such as Apple and Microsoft.
All these measures will do is make it even easier for these behemoths to troll legitimate small companies that might, one day, pose a threat to their business. For instance, those sanctions can be imposed when a court deems a lawsuit to be abusive. Now, for whom will those fees be crippling, a small company with 10 employees barely able to keep their head above water, or Apple, which has 130 billion dollars stashed away safely in tax havens? On top of that, who has the resources to spend on a top-notch legal team to convince the judge that a lawsuit is frivolous? A small startup in Silicon Valley working their assess off to gain funding, or Microsoft, whose legal department is probably larger than their Windows department by now, judging by the still abysmal quality of everything Metro?
It should come as no surprise that these measures will be a huge boon for the big corporations in technology; they are designed to do that because those companies are the ones doing all the lobbying. I see a lot of cheering on forums and Twitter about these steps Obama is taking, but I can assure you they will only skew the balance of power even more in favour of the big guys. This is going to be a total and utter disaster.