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Patents


© August 2001 Tony Lawrence

We all know that patent laws protect inventors by giving them the exclusive rights for some period of time to whatever they invented. Generally, this is seen as a good thing. Few of us are against rewarding innovation, and even though we realize that the vast majority of patents are filed and held by large corporations, we still like to think of the little guy who comes up with a good idea, patents it, and lives happily ever after.

And even large corporations deserve protection, of course. Whatever they patented may have required years of research and development; it's only fair that they should get exclusive rights long enough to make a profit. However, in the area of corporate patents, we have justified suspicions that many of the patents held by the ultra-powerful aren't really legitimate; that they never should have been granted. Amazon's "one-click" is a recent example, but history is full of examples every bit as bad. Supposedly IBM has thousands of patents that relate to the computer industry, and rumors abound about strong arm tactics where other folks supposedly in violation are forced to pay royalties and keep quiet about it to keep the "obvious" nature from being widely known.

Worse is that patent filers are getting smarter about what their patent covers. While the patent may be used to protect a specific product, the actual wording is sure to cover a broad spectrum of possibilities if the lawyers have done their work well. Common people might find the extent that these patents can reach utterly ridiculous, but when there's big money at stake, common sense isn't very important. Unfortunately, there is no penalty for trying to get a patent that extends much farther than it should- and the patent examiners aren't always up to the task of stopping such ridiculous claims.

So, it's understandable that some folks have bad feelings about the current state of patents. But I'd like to point out that there is a bright side to this that we often forget about.

Patents expire.

Oh, yeah, often they can be extended, and different types of inventions have different rules, but sooner or later, every patent passes into the public domain. Every patent, including the ones that are carefully crafted by highly paid experts to cover everything under the sun. And when those all-encompassing patents do expire, well, the all-encompassing technique, method, or whatever also moves into the public domain.

I think that's kind of neat. So when a team of lawyers and engineers twists and turns every which way to lock up every possible use of whatever it is they have, they are also providing the future with the free gift of those possible uses, and possibly preventing someone else from locking up an idea for another 20 years or so.

So maybe we shouldn't complain too much. The future may be more rosy than we think.

If not, there's always www.bountyquest.com. And even that may become more interesting as some of these far-reaching patents expire.


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