The tech news of the day includes Google using its Motorola Mobility patents to sue Apple. Patent suits aren’t new but we are getting to a point where the news flow relating to patent litigation seems to be overshadowing the news relating to new products. The cost of these suits isn’t trivial and there is risk of significant distraction for all the companies involved. It seems like the industry would benefit from a tech patent truce. After all, large tech companies have enough patents to sue each other into oblivion. In fact you can equate the situation to mutually assured destruction – the deterrent often cited which keeps adversaries from engaging in nuclear war.
A common argument relating to patents and justification for these endless tech patent lawsuits is “Why would people invent things if they can’t keep them from being copied by others?” James Allworth at Harvard Business Review disputes this thought and has a solid post on how copying doesn’t stop innovation. The idea is companies are always copied – even the innovators copy from someone. At the end of the day the more copying there is, the more innovation there is and this leads to better outcomes for innovators and consumers.
While this may be the case at times, successful startups have to have timing on their side. If were are an innovator in VoIP and launched your company before the networks had enough bandwidth to support IP communications of acceptable quality – history has shown your company won’t be around to benefit when networks improve. Investors never seem to be as patient as CEOs would like.
So the question worth asking is does the inventor of a new technology deserve protection if someone copies their ideas at some later time when success is more likely?
For example - does Skype, perhaps one of the most successful IP communications companies owe money to any of the hundreds of VoIP companies which litter some telecom innovator graveyard?
In the drug space where it could cost billions of dollars to invent a new drug, does it make sense to allow every competitor in the world to immediately copy a discovery? Of course not.
Is tech different?
In some ways it is in that there are just so many companies with so many ideas. Hundreds of innovative communications companies in the late nineties invented some of the most amazing technology ever. Then the telecom bubble burst in late 2000 and wiped most of these companies out. Still, years later other companies took credit for inventing things they clearly didn’t because they had deep pockets, lots of lawyers and were good at applying for patents.
Some might see protecting tech innovation as a much tougher situation as so many ideas are rehashed.
Still, truly innovative discoveries are really worth protecting from competition – at least for a while. Anyone who has benefitted from life-saving drugs which cost a fortune to develop will readily agree.