Joel Spolsky, a man I admire, discusses the current infestation of patent trolls — people who make no products, but instead make money off of suing those who do. The most dubious patents — and most active patent trolls — seem to concentrate on software patents.
Many people hate patents and intellectual property with a passion. “No patents, no trademarks, no copyrights!” I am not one of them.
Abolishing intellectual property rights (my right to my own writing) is a stunning variety of idiocy, which would rob hardworking people of their income and deprive the public of a lot of great novels, music, and cinema, not to mention many of the devices we depend on. The problem with intellectual property isn’t its existence, but the laziness and dishonesty of a small percentage of freeloading intellectual property owners.
Take Disney. They stacked phat loots (I think that’s the technical term) off public domain works: Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Hercules, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, The Jungle Book, and on and on. They mined Western Civilization for stories they could animate and sell. (This isn’t shameful, Shakespeare did the same thing. Of all his many plays, only one has an original story, and that not one of his best.)
Yet, when their own copyrights are about to lapse, and Steamboat Willie about to become public domain, they run to Congress to rewrite the laws for their own benefit. They want to mine Western Culture, but don’t want to contribute in turn. It’s understandable, if greedy, and thoroughly selfish. Walt Disney is dead, his family is wealthy, and it’s time to pay it back.
At least Disney made something. (Once upon a time.) Patent trolls make nothing, contribute nothing, do nothing.
In most cases they just patent an idea — “using an Internet server to send media on demand” — an idea that (in my opinion) is often an obvious use of other people’s technology (Of course the Internet can serve media on demand — the entire reason it exists is to send digital data on demand!), then they lock that idea up and prevent anyone else from using it. (At least, not without paying the lazy free-loader an unearned fee.)
Patents and other IP protection exist to encourage and reward the truly creative. And it has worked. But when the system gets so distorted that it punishes the creative and rewards the freeloader, things have gone badly wrong somewhere. The current state of events robs hardworking people of their income and deprives the public of actual, shipping innovations.
Bad people ruin good things for everyone else, until they’re stopped. I have no deep insight about how to fix the patent system, or how to punish the lazy freeloaders (“rent seekers” in the current economics parlance), but something needs to be done.