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Apple Co-Founder Sparks New Debate About Legitimacy of Tech Patents

Steven Blum
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A new debate has erupted over the legitimacy of tech patents, sparked by the iconoclastic co-founder of Apple Steve Wozniak. In an interview with Bloomberg, last month, Wozniak spoke out about the patent wars between Samsung and Apple, saying that he "hated them," and explaining what he would do if he were in charge of the patent system.

“I wish everybody would just agree to exchange all the patents and everybody can build the best forms they want to use everybody’s technologies," Wozniak told Bloomberg. He also said that he thought Apple's win against Samsung in California wouldn't hold. "Very small things I don't really call that innovative," he said. 

A month after Wozniak's statements, they continue to spark lots of discussion online. Today, his quotes were posted to Reddit, resulting in nearly 700 comments and a near-top slot at 2nd place on Reddit.com. It appears that folks from across the entire tech world agree that something must be done about the patent mess.

It's not just Android fans that feel the tech patent world has gone nuts. One user named phatinc wondered what would have happened if the creators of the first airplane had been able to maintain a stranglehold on their flight patents (we drew a similar analogy last month): "This reminds me of the patent wars started by the Wright Brothers. Essentially, they patented the system and remained a giant monopoly on flight technology. If the First World War never occurred and the government never pressured them into cross-licensing it, imagine what type of flight technology we'll have today."

Others drew parallels between the tech patent system and the system which patents life-saving drugs, keeping them out of the hands of millions of sick patients. While there remains questions as to how companies would profit if others could easily copy their designs, there remains a general sense that the system today is not working and something must be done to fix it.

Wozniak seems to have sparked an important debate, and the fact that he used to work for Apple gives folks a reason to listen. If even the co-founder of the believes the company is headed in the wrong direction, it probably is.

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  • SimonC Oct 18, 2012 Link

    They should reduce the life span a hardware patent is valid and prevent companies from re-applying for it . If they set the expiry date to either 12 or 18 months and forced ALL companies within this time frame to offer these patents under licensing deals without prejudice at a fixed rate for everyone then I'm sure everyone would be happy.

    If a device has an iconic look which is directly associated with a company then yes to some degree I agree that this design should be protected to prevent cheap knock-offs materialising. However if there is a distinct difference and it is easily identifiable as a product from another company then arguing that black rectangles with rounded corners should not be allowed after all its just a phone. If you look around TV's all look very similar as do a good many cars and a toaster is just a toaster even if it does look very similar to every other toaster with 2 or 4 slots and a push down lever.

    As for software, again this should be limited in a similar manner but should only apply to true functions such as voice recognition. Patents for how a devices GUI behaves such as bounce back or slide to unlock should not be patentable as they are minor decorative tweaks and do not generally influence the appeal of the device when someone is looking at buying it.

    After the patent expires it should become open for to all to use without fear of being sued.

    This courtroom litigation route that some companies seem intent on taking is damaging to the economy and ultimately consumer choice and prices.

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  • Patrick R. Oct 19, 2012 Link

    @Simon I agree with a lot of your points. I have discussed the legal concepts behind patent litigation in the comment section of previous blog entry by eric or steven.

    First, trade dress patent protection should be limited to infringements that causes confusion in the mind of consumers as to what product they are actually buying, ie buying an S3 instead of an iPhone 5 by MISTAKE.

    Second, the average life of a patent is 20 years or so, depending on the jurisdiction. Afterwards, it is part of the public domain - meaning anyone can use it. That is why coke and kfc do not patent their recipes. If the did so in the 80s or 90s it's bye bye trade secrets by now.

    Third, in most jurisdictions - the US not included - software is non patentable. They represent mathematical processes. Imagine if Pythagoras or Descartes patented their theorems and formulas. Or if the simple process of sorting - bubble or heap sort as pointed out by another user in the previous blog's comment thread - were patented and could mot be used for 20 years after registration.

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