Patents; a good time for change

Yesterday saw the unveiling of a new White House initiative to combat patent trolls. The measures are a welcome follow-through to President Obama’s online comments and could be a much needed step towards curbing the power of patents. The announcement correctly highlights the fact that patents are intended to encourage innovation and protect innovators. Patent trolls, in contrast, represent the very antithesis of patents desired usage and outcome; “costing the economy billions of dollars and undermining American innovation”.

Dealing with trolls needs to be a first step though. The patent system contains other flaws, equally damaging to innovation and competitive business practice . Yesterday’s other big patent news was of the ITC’s decision that Apple are in breach of Samsung’s patents and that therefore Apple need to remove many of their older model iphones and ipads from the market. This juicy bit of comeuppance feels very much deserved as the decision to “go thermonuclear” against Android by attacking its deployers blows back in Apples face.

Tasty as that outcome is though, the ongoing patent wars between Apple and Samsung only go to highlight another hole in the patent system. Rather than driving innovation, here patents are again being used as an aggressive weapon, this time to chill the market and enforce monopoly. President Obama has a little used but significant presidential power to intervene in the ITC’s decision if he so chooses during the coming 60 days, so he will be forced to notice it. Hopefully that opportunity to reflect on the way patents are being used in today’s market will reinforce the desire for reform he’s already expressed and lead to further changes to the patent system – to end its use as an anticompetitive weapon.