Are patents good for you?

Angry Birds The Angry Birds game has had more than 300 million downloads

Patents are supposed to be good for innovation, protecting an inventor from having their ideas ripped off by unscrupulous imitators.

The current battle between a number of software developers and an American firm called Lodsys seems to show patents can have a chilling effect on entrepreneurs.

The case has leaped into the headlines now that the Angry Birds maker Rovio has been targeted by Lodsys, a company based in Texas which says it owns a number of patented technologies.

What brought it to my attention was a conversation with a young British developer who is also facing a lawsuit.

My contact - who does not want to be named - is a one-man band who has had great success with an app for both the iPhone and Android platforms. But 10 days ago he received a bulky document through the post from Lodsys.

It accused him of using, without permission, a patent relating to in-app purchasing - something introduced by Apple recently - and warned him that unless he paid a licensing fee to Lodsys, he could end up in court.

He had become the latest in a long list of developers big and small to be drawn into a legal battle with a firm conveniently based near the East Texas court which has proved itself sympathetic to the rights of patent holders.

Now software is much harder to patent in Europe than in the United States, and it would appear unlikely that Lodsys would take this battle to the British courts.


So you might have thought that the developer would have treated the letter as a cheeky attempt to extract money and thrown it in the bin.

But it left my contact worried and confused: "I've no experience in that area, I didn't really understand what it was about, and I don't want to go to the expense of hiring a patent lawyer."

One answer would be simply to withdraw his app from the Apple's United States App Store - but that's where the majority of its customers are.  

Apple's App store Apple exercises strict control over what can run on its platform and has blocked apps in the past

He has contacted Apple and Google who've both said they will be in touch.

Apple has already intervened in the wider case, writing to Lodsys to say it's licensed the technology in question itself and to lay off its developers.

"I suppose I could just pay out a few hundred dollars and hope it will go away," says the developer. "But if I do that, then I could be seen as an easy target for others."

So what exactly is Lodsys and what does it do?

From its website, it seems its business consists of acquiring patents and launching lawsuits - there is no evidence that it actually makes anything.

Read through one of its patents and you will be none the wiser as to what the invention involves - and why it deserves the protection of the courts. But of course I am not a patent lawyer.

Experts tell me the landscape is shifting in patent law, with the American courts less friendly to this kind of tactic while in Europe it has become slightly easier to patent computer-based innovations.

I emailed the chief executive of Lodsys, Mark Small, to try to have a conversation about these matters. He swiftly sent me a very polite reply:

"We have to respectfully decline. We made the decision not to do press interviews and apply our resources to licensing discussions."

But here is what I would want to have asked him. Is a system that appears to reward those who acquire patents and hire lawyers and punish those who simply try to make things really going to encourage innovation?

My contact is certainly not doing much innovating right now - he's too busy worrying about the threat of an expensive lawsuit.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I worked as head of tech for a "software" firm that was in the process of applying for a software patent on a marketing application. The whole point of the application seemed to revolve around the ability to threaten lawsuits on other companies. I was VERY unpopular when I began to point out the deficiencies in the patent (it didn't reflect what the software was doing and was all prior art anyway)

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Peter @21
    Saying maths is a fact of nature is a philosophical interpretation. It is an interpretation of Plato's essences. 20th century mathematics has convinced me that maths is a machine. Of course machines exist in nature but they don't exist until they exist, i.e. there is no pre-existing essence as suggested by Plato. If the law sees maths as natural then that's legacy that will change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    I recall hawking around patented ideas for a small company a few years back and the result was that large companies who looked at the invention with large teams of lawyers did virtually the same thing are simply said sue up if your dare. And just in case you don't know the winner in these cases is the side with the most money, not the best case.

    Also see Rupert Murdoch/NoW and phone hacking!

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    The problem with software patents is that it is too easy to patent anything.

    Small software developers could be paralysed, because ANYTHING they produce innocently could potentially have been patented by a big company. They can't afford to check all the patents that are out there, but even when they aren't actually copying anything else (but coming up with it independently) they could be liable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    This behaviour has been going on for a long time - it used to be used by companies to prevent market entry by foreign competition not finding it worthwhile protesting as the cost was far more than the opportunity was worth even if the patent was blatantly a keep off the grass sign.
    It works no differently to insurance settlements - pay a little now or risk a hugely expensive legal bill.


Comments 5 of 73



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