Apple’s suit against HTC pits patents against innovation

The patent system is out of touch with the modern world, where today’s innovations are taken for granted in next year’s products.

Ryan Anson/AFP PHOTO/file
Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs announces the new iPad as he speaks during an Apple Special Event in San Francisco Jan. 27. Apple is suing HTC and other mobile device makers for stealing their "patented inventions."

Eric Von Hippel, professor of technological innovation at MIT comments in The New York Times on yesterday’s announcement that Apple is suing HTC and other mobile device makers for “[stealing their] patented inventions”

“It’s a bad scene right now. The social value of patents was supposed to be to encourage innovation — that’s what society gets out of it. The net effect is that they decrease innovation, and in the end, the public loses out.”

It’s interesting that the justifications of patents I’ve seen (even from Objectivists) is on utilitarian premises – a justification of the “social” benefits of the patent system. But the evidence suggests the opposite – that patents are a net cost, not a benefit to both innovators and consumers. It seems like every day we hear about patent lawsuits being used to get monopolistic privileges from the government as a substitute for innovation.

The premises the patent system is based on are utterly out of touch with the modern world. The old notion of a new invention being state of the art for a decade is an outdated (not that it was ever accurate to begin with) way of thinking about the pace of innovation. Today’s latest innovations are taken for granted in next year’s products. Steve Jobs is well aware of this.

Inventions are increasingly becoming algorithms to solve common problems and shape the next technological paradigm rather than detailed technical specifications.  Patent portfolios are becoming nuclear arsenals.  Full-out patent war against an equally matched competitor means mutually assured destruction (because it risks having one’s patents invalidated or having to pay huge damages and pull products from market), so large companies inevitably settle and use their patents to keep new innovators out.  This is why HTC is a safer target than Google, which created the software over which Apple is suing.

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