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  (Source: New Line Cinema)
Patent reform is crucial or electronics industry will be consumed in self-destructive chaos

It's simple math.  And it illustrates how broken the international patent registration and court system is when it comes to intellectual property.

I. The System is Broken

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) recently revealed that tentative Google Inc. (GOOG) acquisition Motorola Mobility wanted $22.50 per device for a series of video codec patents.  This request was clearly ridiculous -- as Microsoft states, the typical licensing rate for a collection of standards patents under fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms is around $0.02 USD per device.

FRAND is actually a model system in that it is inherently an exemplar in the world of intellectual property.  It represents fair compensation to innovators, yet opens key developments to the masses, allowing them to push the envelope.

The issue is that FRAND is on the verge of dying.

FRAND patents are for friends
[Original Image: Cayusa/Flickr; modifications: Jason Mick/DailyTech]

The would-be murderer is patent litigation.  Keep that $0.02 USD patent licensing figure in mind.  Now imagine you patent a trivial user interface gesture, which is essentially some sort of variant on drag and drop.  Suddenly you can ban a competitor's device which retails for $200.00 USD.

That's right -- based on recent court decisions, almost trivial non-FRAND patents [1][2][3] are being rewarded with rulings worth 10,000x or more the cost of traditional licensing fees.

This abysmal state of affairs not only encourages patent trolling, it offers a strong financial incentive to stop any FRAND related work.  If your competitors go non-FRAND and your company works cooperatively under FRAND guidelines, your firm will almost certainly be dealt a series of crippling court rulings under the current patent atmosphere.  Try explaining that to investors.

II. Some Suggestions for Improving the System

User interface patents, firmware patents, and their ilk certainly represent a philosophy of protecting software innovators.  That's a noble goal.  However, in the future, it would be good for the patent system to consider a couple of points:

1. The potential for alternatives

Apple recently patented sending an interrupt to a processor in order to underclock it.  Now, interrupts have been used for decades as the fundamental firmware mechanism to deal with immediate events.  And a processor's power circuitry must receive some sort of guidance in order to underclock a chip.

Thus, while Apple's patent may be novel (assuming a lack of prior art), there are few feasible alternatives.  The patent system should note this kind of situation and put a higher pressure to reach a fair licensing situation in this kind of case.  You can't patent the laws of physics, so to speak, and even if you could, the least the system can do is to force you to license it.

2. The importance of a patent

Thus far Apple has secured short bans on Android products for relatively trivial features -- swipe to unlock, fast scrolling algorithms, and a "bounce" animation when performing drags or pinches.

In terms of the iPhone's net worth these represent maybe 1/500th or less of the total software innovation in the device.  Thus it might be fair to charge collectively $1.00 USD per device for them, but seeking a ban or exorbitant fees from competitors who use similar effects/inputs is extremely punitive and unfair.

3. Eliminating repetition

The mobile industry is awash in a deluge of repatents -- companies taking personal computer innovations, putting a mobile spin on them and then filing for a patent.  Apple's swipe to unlock is essential a touch screen version of the time immemorial drag-and-drop.

Motorola unlock
Motorola's forbidden swipe to unlock gesture [Image Source: YouTube]

If such repeats are allowed, the patents should at least be flagged.  Again such a flag could be used as a basis to force a licensing settlement and/or reduce the maximum damages a company can seek to collect in a suit.

4. Force Companies to Reach Licensing Settlements

Barring a handful of patents where the IP describes essentially an entire product, there should be strict guidelines forcing companies to settle software IP disputes.

A reasonable place to start would be to charge x10 the going FRAND rate (e.g. $0.20 USD for licensing a portfolio of IP).  In FRAND terms, this would not be fair and reasonable.  But the approach would bring into line the risk-vs-reward equation of the FRAND-vs-non-FRAND filings, versus the current hyper-inflated value scenario which essentially tilts the value scale in the direction of non-FRAND so far that the balance bar breaks.

III. Don't Want to Fix the System?  Prepare for a Dying Industry

As the industry stands right now, FRAND is on the verge of collapse.  Google and its partners are fast learning that playing fair does not work.  Their FRAND suits illustrate a willingness to play dirty.  And that new perspective will likely soon manifest in a cessation of FRAND work.

This is a horrible state of affairs for the industry.  By allowing injunctions that exceed FRAND payouts 10,000-fold, the global intellectual property sphere is revelling in the creation of an anti-competitive, anti-technology environment.

This system promises an ugly future in which mobile communications are slow (as it would be uneconomical to participate in FRAND communications standard development), there interfaces will be clunky (a company will be limited to a handful of UI elements for fear of infringement), and product quality will be decreased to offset an inevitable slew of licensing fees.

Cavemen fire
Prepare for the future of technology if the patent system is not reworked.
[Image Source: Museum of Natural History]

This is a system where nobody wins.  And this is the system that will result if drastic action is not taken, right now.

Is Google/Motorola/Samsung playing dirty?  Yes.
Is Microsoft milking the licensing system [1][2]? Yes.
Is Apple acting as an anticompetitive litigation abuser? Yes.

In a macroscopic sense, the problem is not these companies.  The problem is the intellectual property system.  This argument must not be lost amid our personal prejudices, lest the increasingly hyperlitigious atmosphere destroy the innovative devices we enjoy today, regardless of who makes them.


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This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

Here we go again
By adiposity on 2/29/2012 1:56:06 PM , Rating: 2
Jason, here is my response to the other article where you made the same claim. Again, I say, you cannot compare the retail price of a piece of hardware to the cost of licensing a patent and come up with a ratio that means anything! The $200 does not go to Apple, so they aren't being "rewarded" 10000x the FRAND patent cost.

quote:
For example a collection of FRAND patents is oft licensed for $0.02 per device. This is very reasonable. It would be also reasonable to allow Apple to sue and potentially win a mandatory licensing settlement of $0.20. (10x premium over FRAND) What I don't see as fair is Apple suing over a relatively minor piece of intellectual property and potentially banning a $200 product. This represents a 10,000x premium versus the FRAND licensing!!!!


Jason, while you make some good points, I really don't see how you can compare the cost of the licensing to the cost of the product. There is no direct comparison between the license cost and the retail price of a device, and banning a $200 device is not the same as requiring $200 is licensing fees. It is simply banning the device until it is not violating patents.

Now I don't agree with Apple's suing, but you are comparing two totally different numbers and then trying to calculate a ratio which is meaningless. There is no ratio known as "the retail price divided by the license cost of one patent" that can calculate your "10,000x premium."

If anything the cost of a phone vs. the price minus the cost minus the licensing might be compared. Then you could see what the total amount lost might be for getting banned vs. licensing. While it would be interesting, it would not be any kind of "premium," because the money doesn't go to Apple! It's just inability to sell the product.




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