Wed, Oct 10, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Patent system can stifle software competition

Experts worry that Apple being granted broad patents may give the company control of technologies that, over the past seven years, have been independently developed at dozens of companies and have become central to many devices

By Charles Duhigg and Steve Lohr  /  NY Times News Service

When Apple submitted the first application for 8,086,604, the iPhone and Siri did not exist. The application was aspirational: It described a theoretical “universal interface” that would allow people to search across various mediums, like the Internet, corporate databases and computer hard drives, without having to use multiple search engines. It outlined how such software might function, but it did not offer specifics about how to build it. It suggested that some people might speak a search phrase rather than use a keyboard.

The ideas contained in the application would blossom at Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nuance, Vlingo and dozens of other companies. All the while, the application traveled quietly through the patent office, where officials rejected it twice in 2007, three times in 2008, once in 2009, twice in 2010 and once last year.

The patent office declined to discuss 8,086,604. Officials pointed out that the agency’s 7,650 examiners received more than half a million applications last year and the numbers have kept climbing.

By all accounts, there have been improvements in the patent office since David Kappos took over as director in 2009. In an interview, Kappos said the lengthy back-and-forth between examiners and Apple was evidence that the system worked.

“It’s called the patent office,” he said, noting that issuing patents is the agency’s job.

In a statement, the agency said it had spent the last three years strengthening policies to improve patent quality. Besides, Kappos said, “we realize that only a handful of these patents will be really important.”

Some experts worry that Apple’s broad patents may give the company control of technologies that, over the last seven years, have been independently developed at dozens of companies and have become central to many devices.

“Apple could get a chokehold on the smartphone industry,” said Tim O’Reilly, a publisher of computer guides and a software patent critic. “A patent is a government-sanctioned monopoly and we should be very cautious about handing those out.”

Others say the system works fine.

“Intellectual property is property, just like a house, and its owners deserve protection,” said Jay Kesan, a law professor at the University of Illinois. “We have rules in place, and they’re getting better.”

“And if someone gets a bad patent, so what?” he said. “You can request a re-examination. You can go to court to invalidate the patent. Even rules that need improvements are better than no rules at all.”

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