Patents are, in the words of @lapcat: anti-competition, anti-free market, anti-consumer. First to market is already a huge competitive advantage.
Patents are a huge part of the reason you're paying so much for health insurance right now. They play a large role in stifling innovation. Imagine you have a great idea that hasn't been done before, but you suddenly discover parts of it have been patented. The patenter isn't doing shit with the idea, yet they have a 20-year monopoly on it.
Oh, and they also happen to be a huge monolithic organization with thousands of employees worldwide that is patenting thousands of ideas every year, yet actually implementing only a small fraction of those ideas.
Don't think this happens? You don't know much about patents then. The patent system is one of the best examples of an idea backfiring on itself that I know of. It was supposed to protect the guy toiling in his garage on the next best thing (read: Apple in its infancy), but today it's doing the exact opposite while screwing consumers over to boot.
The amount of testing, regulatory costs, tooling costs, etc etc, makes bringing an innovative thing to market very, very expensive indeed. Most of these things are also trivially easy to reverse engineer - the patent is the only thing preventing a company's competitors from cloning the tech, avoiding all of the costs associated, and discouraging innovation overall.
The trick is software patents - software largely doesn't cost a lot, not compared to big heavy machinery requiring onerous certification and government authorizations. 3 guys hacking for a month straight is peanuts compared to, say, the amount of money it would cost to bring a new fuel injection system to market, yet the software these guys produce can be equally valuable from a marketability perspective. This is where patents fall apart - the point of the patent system is to encourage R&D spending by allowing protection of its results, because being simply first to market is not a large enough advantage in many industries to be profitable. It is, however, true in software, so I'm personally dubious of software patents in general.
Just some perspective - I dislike the "patents are evil, always, every way!" kneejerk reaction. It has a very valid role in a lot of industries that aren't well represented or understood by people on HN.
"It is somewhat surprising that Apple received some of the patents in question, such as the patent on "Conserving Power By Reducing Voltage Supplied To An Instruction-Processing Portion Of A Processor". When you peel away the technical language, the patent basically is talking about saving power by supplying less voltage to a circuit and some common strategies to do so. Not only has then been seemingly done before (prior art), but it also is inherently given by laws of nature (power = current * voltage). If that's patentable, the general concept of die shrinks should be patentable, overclocking would be patentable (watch out Anandtech.com!), and a whole host of other processes made possible by laws of nature."
As must be stated anytime there is an article on here concerning patents, read the claims, not just the title. Most of the titles are so broad as to be meaningless, but the claims must be made specific, as these are what can be defended against infringement.
In this particular case, the claims themselves ( http://www.google.com/patents/about?id=7CCWAAAAEBAJ&dq=7... ) are vague and extremely obvious, and I would be shocked if every claim hadn't already been implemented and/or patented by someone else. In fact, if you read the application, they were forced to retract the first twenty of their original claims.
I know it has become fashionable to say that the concept of patents in general is flawed, and that patent examiners are sub-human imbeciles. I disagree on both counts; software patents are generally crap and should be done away with to a large extent, but as another commenter has pointed out, many inventions require a great deal more investment and patents provide a great incentive to develop such things. It is unreasonable to expect patent examiners (engineers, not lawyers) to do a perfect job of pattern-matching each application with every similar previous application, considering that patent applications are deliberately worded in a language which is impenetrable to anyone trying to figure out what the hell something does. Reform at the policy level is needed, and acting as though the problem is that patent examiners aren't smart enough or that patents in general are a bad idea tends not to be very persuasive.
Patents are a contract, the state gives you monopoly, you give the state the knowledge(with plans, drawings and explanations) of how your thing works. Without showing the code, you should not be granted a patent.
For any given field, it is simply much easier to have a single, general purpose machine into which special instructions for special circumstances are programmed. You can see everything from 3-d metal printers to synthetic genetic computers on the horizon. Software will fuel all of these.
So if any future patent system is going to be a software patent system. And we've seen how evil software patents are.
There isn't an easy middle ground.
But as you state, in software, it's very detrimental, and I'm sure software isn't the only industry where that's the case. That's why we need a far more nuanced approach. We could start by not handing out 20-year monopolies for ideas that take only a few months to implement and bring to market.
In general, I think that it would be useful for all legislation to carry along with it legally binding "original intent" written down in broad, layman terms. That way a legal framework would exist to protect people from legislative hypocrisy.
Intel used patents in this way for years to intimidate and harass potential competitors in the desktop platform that it effectively monopolized for years. Apple is doing the same thing now with respect to its platform. What amazes me is not that Apple is being a jerk about this but that so many believed it would be otherwise. While Apple may in many ways be a rebel company (or at least has cultivated its image this way), when it comes to IP protections, it plays strictly by the standard script.
Look, Apple defines entire classes of devices. That's what they do. Look at the history of PCs, media players, and smartphones: everything that came before Apple's entry into the market was a rough prototype, and everything that came after was a knockoff. Their IP claims are not overly broad for a company whose work shapes the entire industry.
In regards to Apple, it may be that some of these patents in question are completely legitimate, and are consistent with the spirit of the idea of patents. I would not view Apple in a negative light for protecting what others might have knocked-off. Lets see how the case works out. It may turn out that many of Apple's claims are invalidated through prior art, etc. But if they do hold, I say good for Apple. BTW, I carry an Android phone.
- Generally failing to reward innovators.
- Encouraging more benefits than it costs to society.
The former is because:
- Generally individuals cannot afford to effectively use the patent process.
- Any innovation usually has a couple of good ideas but requires many other (already patented) building blocks which makes the new innovation unprofitable or impossible to pursue.
- Companies that can afford to file and use patents generally can't realize their new ideas, or if they do, not to the full extent of their promise. (Every company has limited resources and a patent on, say, the mouse has a whole load of possible applications.)
- Technology moves so fast than 20 years is essentially 5 product life cycles.
I would argue that the patent system does nothing at all to deliver value to the consumer.
Generally things are cheapest for consumers when there is a large market of near-homogeneous products, such as consumer televisions - exactly the kind of market patents are designed to stop by the granting of temporary monopolies. Yet in that market (where everyone can build a TV) we see pretty rapid innovation - when I grew up in 1980 we had one black and white TV. Now we can reasonably expect that 3D TVs will be available for twenty bucks before 2020.
You say 'some' excess, but it's my understanding that the vast majority of patent applications and patent lawsuits fall under the 'abuses' that you're talking about. How often is the patent system really protecting the little guy vs being used as a tool by large corporations to oppress the little guy?
Apple isn't a person, they are a company, and their primary goal is to make money, not be nice. In recent years their R&D budget has topped $1 billion. I don't think it's far fetched to assume that they are going to extract everything of value, patent everything they can, that springs from that investment. To do otherwise would be a disservice to their shareholders.
_I_ don't like what Apple is doing, but they are following the current rules of the game. If you don't like the outcome, then work to change the rules. Expecting Apple to play nice is unrealistic. They are going to do whatever is in their own best self interest. That's how our economic system works.
A large part of the problem is that most people aren't even aware that there is a problem. That's why public discussion such as this is valuable: if enough people are aware, then change is possible.