The problem with patents

After recently (January 7, 2010) posting comments about the problems of patents being used as a measure of scientific innovation and progress, I found this eloquent description on Techdirt,

Almost a third of our portfolio is under attack by patent trolls. Is it possible that one third of the engineering teams in our portfolio unethically misappropriated technology from someone else and then made that the basis of their web services? No! That’s not what is happening. Our companies are driven by imaginative and innovative engineering teams that are focused on creating social value by bringing innovative new services to market.

Our companies are being attacked by companies that were not even in the same market, very often by companies they did not even know existed….

I know of no case where the engineers in one of our companies were aware of the patents that are now being used to attack them. The moral rightness of this screams at me. If, as an engineer focused on solving a problem, I happened to come up with an idea that is in some way similar to yours, then that in itself should suggest that it was obvious and not patentable. Unfortunately, that does not really help. There, the burden of proof is still on the startup and it is still smarter to settle than to burn precious capital on a defense.

If, on the other hand, the troll was required to show the startup had some prior knowledge of their technology, the burden would be shifted to the attacker, and this blatant abuse would come to a grinding halt. If you believe as I do that innovation is key to social progress, please support patent reform. It is a complicated issue, but an independent invention defense is an obvious place to start.

The individual making the comments is a partner in a well respected venture capital firm that specializes in internet-related issues. You can read more of the Techdirt article here.

The US records many patents but are they good patents or patents that are intended to the lay groundwork for a payout? I assume the practice of filing nuisance patents is not confined to the US alone although the practice is not as common in Canada. I’m not sure I’d ascribe that to our better national character so much as there is less financial incentive. All of which takes me back to the 2009 OECD scoreboard which uses patents as a measure of scientific progress and my idle thoughts about it all here.

You might want to take a look at one of Rob Annan’s (Don’t leave Canada behind) postings about Canada’s Green brain drain? This is more fallout from the last federal budget.

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