Recent months have seen patent law suit stories hogging the headlines of broadsheets, tech websites and blogs. It is becoming a popular debate in the digital industry, and seems to be getting bigger and more common by the day. Patent law isn’t a new concept, they’ve been knocking around since 500BC, and I don’t think anyone would argue that they’ve done a pretty good job of fostering innovation. King Henry VI in 1449 granted the world’s first 20 year patent to John Of Utyman for demonstrating the creation of coloured glass in England – a genuine advance in design that was well worth paying for, but there’s a limit to how far patents should be allowed to go. I think we are seeing that limit become increasingly obvious in the smartphone and digital tablet market. Making it a frustrating, time-consuming period for developers and users.
To make sure we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet - A patent is a set of exclusive rights granted by a state to an inventor, on agreement that they have created a particular product that is new, non- obvious and useful or industrially applicable. This written patent gives all the rights to the inventor and prevents others from making similar products, using or selling this product without the owner’s permission. When owning a patent you have the right to sell, license, assign or transfer your product. The space of time you own the patent for can vary depending on countries and international agreements, but must be re-issued and updated when out of date to stop others from using your idea.
As I said, the most notable patent problems at the moment surround the Smartphone and tablet market. Each smartphone may involve as many as 250,000 patent claims. Very recently infact (9th September 2011) patent law has seen Apple take Samsung to court in Germany, claiming that Samsung infringed the recognisable iPad design. The court judge Johanna Brueckner-Hoffman highlighted “the minimalist, modern form is a clear impression of similarity”, and had the Samsung Galaxy Tab removed from sale in the majority of European countries. However, the ban has now been lifted from European countries, apart from Germany, and put on hold while the court reviews whether the original ruling was appropriate. People are desperate to get their hands on these pieces of technology; a ban in Germany is not going to stop them importing it from other countries.
Apple and Samsung will also face each other in courtrooms in Australia, North America and Asia over similar claims. This appears to be a legitimate claim, with Apple at the forefront of design, they have created a new product that has a unique look and appeal for the digital market. The original iPad and the iPad2 have become iconic design symbols for 2011, surely no one can get away with creating something so similar.
While that claim might be at least vaguely sensible, we are starting to see a lot more that don’t sound so genuine. With claims of Google buying a patent, then selling it to HTC who promptly uses it to sue Apple it almost appears that each of these competitors are trying to get one over on each other. One-upmanship on a huge scale, with everyone being sued by everyone else, the only way to get one up and make their money back, is by finding another patent law they can buy, and then sue others for breaching it.
The growing popularity and potential profit of suing for breach of patents seems to be creating an influx of companies setting up businesses just to get money out of others. Therefore creating what appear to be ridiculous patents, for example LCC created a patent on sending confidential information over the internet, and is now suing large companies such as Microsoft and Monster.com.
Another crazy patent involves a court spending two months reviewing 675,000 pages of documents about a pattern on toilet roll. Yes, toilet roll, Georgia-Pacific claimed that Kimberley–Clark’s use of an embossed diamond pattern on Cottonelle violated its trademark and patents for a similar pattern used on Quilted Northern since the early 1990s.
Here are some of the strangest patents I have come across recently:
Buttock Parter - International Patent W002069773
Yes, that is a patent that parts your buttocks while you sit on the toilet seat.
Poop Catcher - German Patent DE4020440
One end of this devise connects where the sun doesn’t shine, and the other is connected to an all purpose suction pump. I think you can picture the rest for yourself.
Unicorn Maker - US Patent US4429685
This bizarre patent demonstrates how to create a unicorn by joining the two horns of a goat together creating one central horn. Abracadabra a unicorn.
Santa Claus Detector - US Patent US5523741
This child’s Christmas device uses its inbuilt power source to flash and tell you when Santa has arrived.
This has been quite the topic of conversation in the Codegent office recently, you can see why in this BBC News article.