When done right, patents are a useful way to incentivize innovation by granting exclusive but limited-time rights to an inventor. Such robust intellectual property rights are a major prerequisite for scientific and technological progress.
But as the following clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver shows, “patent trolls” are undermining the system, scaring away a lot of small-time inventory, and costing the country hundreds of billions of dollars in litigation.
An article by Vox.com further explores the issue, highlighting just how out of hand it has become:
Research shows that patents on software are particularly prone to litigation. There are several reasons for that:
- Software patents can be extremely broad. For example, a famous Amazon.com patent covers the concept of purchasing products online with one click. Another patent owned by a troll called MPHJ covers the concept of scanning documents to an email address. This kind of broad patent makes it easy for businesses to infringe by accident, triggering lawsuits by the patent holders.
- Most companies aren’t just users of software, but also have IT departments and web developers that produce it. So many firms that wouldn’t otherwise have to worry about patent law are at risk of infringing software patents.
- Software is extremely complex. Computer programs contain thousands, and sometimes millions, of lines of code. Since patents can be infringed in just a few lines of code, there’s no practical way for companies to figure out which patents their software products might be infringing.
Just another way that sheer greed, backed by perverse legal and institutional collusion, is threatening human progress.