Skirmishes in the patent war
Before Christmas, Apple launched lawsuits in several countries against Samsung, claiming the Samsung Galaxy tablet computer infringed Apple's iPad patents, including its patent on the use of rounded corners. In the Netherlands, the Court of Appeals at the Hague has rejected Apple's arguments.
Patents were conceived as a way to allow inventors to protect their ideas whilst they developed and commercialised them, to encourage innovation. Nowadays though, patents are increasingly used by the large players to stifle competition, creating a legal minefield for anyone seeking to enter a technology market. Last year the US Patent Office issued 224,505 patents and for the 19th year in a row, the company filing the most patent claims was IBM with 6,180 patents in 2011, followed by Samsung with 4,894 claims. Microsoft was 6th in the list, filing 2,311 patent claims, whilst Apple was surprisingly down in 29th place, filing a mere 676 patents.
Whilst IBM is keen to publicise its top spot, these huge figures mean little, and patents should be judged by quality, not quantity but the US model seems to be for the Patent Office to award patents with very little scrutiny and leave it to the courts and lawyers to sort out the validity. For example, a widely-accepted criteria for patent validity is that it should be describing an idea which was not obvious to someone familiar with the field. On that basis, many US patents should never have been considered in the first place. For example, the emerging technology of hydrogen fuel cells are used to generate electricity and electricity is used to power computers, so it is blindingly obvious that fuel cells could one day be used to power mobile computers. But that hasn't stopped Apple from making a land grab on this combination by filing a patent application:
Surely any such patent would be invalid, but with 13 billion dollars of profit in the bank, Apple has deep pockets and can afford the lawyers. If you are a smaller company developing technology in that direction in future, it might be cheaper to simply agree to Apple's claims and pay them a patent tax on every device you eventually sell than to try to contest it through the very costly US legal system.
The other criteria for awarding patents is that the ideas must be original. If examples of the idea are already well known or previously published, those examples are referred to as "prior art", and it is prior art which the judges in the Hague quite rightly used to reject Apple's claims that Samsung's Galaxy infringed its design patents on the iPad. This case is especially interesting because the judges cited a video to be found on YouTube as an example of prior art. The video was created by Knight-Ridder in 1994 and shows the results of their think tank work on the future of newspapers and simulations of how they think a tablet computer should work. The video was uploaded to YouTube in 2007.
This 13 minute video is astonishing. Remember this is 1994. Windows 95 is still in development, very few people had heard of the internet or email or web browsers, we didn't yet have broadband comms, and we were nowhere near the battery and CMOS technology used to make today's truly portable notebooks and tablet PCs. Yet this video shows concepts which look like they've come straight from tablet PCs in 2011, (complete with rounded corners) and it contains a lot more horse sense than many of today's offerings.
Surprisingly, patent disputes and stealing of inventions is far from new. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph concept and Alexander Bell was one of the early pioneers working on ways to turn this into a workable system. Rather than using the spiral V groove that became the industry standard, Bell was working on a system of pits, not unlike the way data is held on a modern CD. He sent some of his early disks to the Smithsonian, so that there would be independent proof of his work, but his fear of competitors stealing the ideas meant he never supplied the Smithsonian with a suitable device to play back the recordings. Recently, engineers at the Lawrence Berkley Laboratories have scanned those fragile discs, used software to emulate the playback device and recreated the first ever recordings of the human voice made 127 years ago back in 1885. It is hard to understand them but having listened to one of them several times, I believe the speaker says
Mary had a little lamb
And its fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
Alexander Bell is of course best known for his invention of the first practical telephone, a feat which is commemorated in this pop song by the Sweet from a mere 40 years ago.
27th January 2012
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