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The patent troll that won a $308M jury trial against Apple (letterspatent.org)
305 points by ketamine__ 36 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 272 comments

The issue I have with much of the patent trolling bashing is, that it somehow makes a distinction between practicing companies who make something and non practicing entities. I think this is a huge veil the industry pulled over people's eyes. Why is it OK for huge companies like apple, IBM, Google... to use the patent system to keep out any competitors or newcomers, but it is not ok for smaller inventors to sell their patents to some of these "trolls" who then sue the big companies for violating the patents?

Don't get me wrong, many of the patents are absolutely bogus, but that's not exclusive to patent troll patents. In fact bogus patents help established companies even more, because the trolls at least have to defend those patents in court at times, a small new player who is threatened by a large established one over some bogus patent can't afford to defend themselves.

The whole notion that patents are only legitimate if you build something is completely bogus. Either the patent system is about encouraging and rewarding innovation and then it should apply to anyone equally, or it is not and we should abolish it. I'm firmly in the second camp, but it seems the big players want to have their cake and eat it too.

Patents are a monopoly on an idea. And ideas shouldn't be owned by anyone. One shouldn't be forced to share their ideas, but the concept of coming up with something, and then going to your community and saying:

"Hey everyone, I thought of this and wrote it down, none of you wrote it down before so now it's my idea for the next 30 years"

Is just ridiculous.

People like to say that without patents there will be no incentive to advance technology, but if you're the one to come up with an idea then you already have a huge head start. If you don't make use of that head start, then you don't deserve it, and this applies to patents as well.

Monopolies are bad, and competition is good. Everyone is already incentivized to come up with and implement ideas faster than their competitors. Giving one person a monopoly just restricts others from creating competing products and only gives the user a worse and more expensive product.

In practice you'll have a head start of maybe a year before a grifter in China replicates your three years of R&D and floods the market. And a copied product will always be cheaper as they don't have to amortise development costs.

That's how technology worked before the patent systems, and the outcome was manufacturer secrecy - which generally sucked more than the patent system.

The Chinese cloning threat is largely overrated unless your product is very simple and you have 0 branding.

A perfect counter-example to patents is FDM printers, which were incredibly expensive and inaccessible to the average hobbyist until the Stratasys patents started to expire. Now while it’s true there’s a lot of Chinese printers on the market, that hasn’t killed western companies - Pruša might be 2x-3x pricier than a Creality, but the 3D printing farms I know still went with the former, due to higher reliability and the fact that they need less fiddling to produce high quality outputs.

Meanwhile Stratasys is still selling $100k machines, and I highly doubt any of their customers would rather buy a cheap Chinese 3D printer instead.

The cloning threat is very real on high end systems. Things like electric train propulsion, water purification systems, tons of various industrial designs with enormous upfront R&D were copied wholesale.

Branding is completely irrelevant to the issue, you could well come up with say explosion-safe proportional valve design that is sold OEM worldwide and that an average consumer might not even know exists as a category.

> The Chinese cloning threat is largely overrated unless your product is very simple and you have 0 branding

This is proven false by the amount of top-selling products that Amazon has ripped off, produced for less (sometimes by striking a deal with the original factory), and then labeled “Amazon Basics”

Any examples of that where the product isn't commodity-grade? The AmazonBasics examples I see are things like household appliances, cables, cheap accessories, lightbulbs and batteries. If you're a small-to-medium sized business in the West, you should try to target market segments where the quality, branding and support of the product matters, as obviously you will lose in a race-to-the-bottom of undifferentiated low-quality commodities.

Look at how Raspberry Pi still manages to maintain a huge market presence despite the prevalence of cheap Chinese clones - even if the latter occasionally have superior specs on-paper, in practice I have yet to find one that isn't vastly inferior in terms of ecosystem and software.

It sucked in different ways, but its not clear that it sucked more.

The point of the patent system is that you share your invention in the world, in exchange for monopolizing it for a few years. The problem is that most software patents share absolutely nothing of value with the world.

I'm with you on software patents, but they are only a fraction of patents landscape and really pertinent only to North America. But naturally it's overemphasized here on HN.

Way overemphasized here on HN. The USPTO is in a terrible spot right now. Your IP is not worth what it was before the AIA (America Invents Act). It essentially decimated the patent system. I won't go into specifics.

I think another misconception is the entire purpose of the USPTO. The USPTO wants EVERYTHING in the entire universe to be in the public domain. To achieve this, you give them your idea and in exchange they give you a monopoly for 20 years minus prosecution time. Even worse, anything you publish anywhere on earth after one year automatically gets in the public domain.

Anyways, enough ranting, but the system is very expensive and is actually not incentivizing the "inventor" anymore.

Can we do away with this myth that patenting something will somehow put knowledge into the open. Has anyone here actually read a patent? They absolutely will not tell you how to do something. In particular I know for fact that, the things that are actually valuable are either never patented or specifically omitted from the patents so that no one can actually reproduce a method technology from a patent because some crucial steps are missing.

> Can we do away with this myth that patenting something will somehow put knowledge into the open.

They said it's the purpose of the patent system, not the real-world effect. It's very important to remind people of this purpose. Because people (especially lawyers) keep pushing this concept that ownership on a patented idea is some kind of natural right being protected by law. Which is completely opposite to reality, and part of what leads to the system being warped in the way you complain about.

That's not the rule, patents have to be reproducible by a man of the trade. Not disclosing crucial steps in the claims, even if overlooked by an examiner, is also a handicap: someone can circumvent your patent if the actual substance is missing.

Have a look at the original Gore membrane patent: https://patents.google.com/patent/US4194041A/en

It's very clear, detailed and reproducible.

And since we are on HN, here a bit on the software side: IBM original arithmetic coding patent.


Perhaps it something that should not have been patented, but it's fully disclosed and reproducible.

I'd be very interested in a writeup. My gut feeling was always that it is in fact not incentivizing the "inventor" either. I do see people at big institution filing patent after patent, but it seems very inaccessible for a normal human being like me.

Exactly. Patents protect only monopoly of large companies. Getting a patent in EU or in USA is very expensive ranging from tens of thousands and up to hundreds of thousands. Big part of this money goes to totally unproductive parasitic hands.

The fees are half for small businesses, and 1/4 for "micro entities". If you only want a US patent it isn't very expensive. Investors want to see patents which implies they have value, even if it's an uphill battle to take on a big company.

Though I do agree lawyers and govts have basically colluded to create a system to suck money out of business in return for being allowed to function.

> In practice you'll have a head start of maybe a year before a grifter in China replicates your three years of R&D and floods the market.

So, not much different then?

It's different in that you can prevent the imports of copies into the mature markets by suing the importers.

The fact of the matter is that countries with weak IP laws and/or enforcement see less innovation. It makes sense too, the calculus is easy: rip someone’s tested idea off for free, or invest huge piles of money just to get your foot in the door?

Do you really believe that software patents represent anything close to an original idea? From my perspective, Software patents are on such stupid things utterly divorced from anything that could be considered innovative, that none of it incentivizes inovation.

The calculus also doesn't seem all that clear to me. A alternative calculus: Build something new on top of someone else's idea (stand on the shoulders of giants) or spend all your time and money reinventing a perfectly good wheel so that you can do it in a slightly different manner purely for legal reasons.

You are leaving out the option of just licensing the patent. If you are lucky they will license it to you for free.

That's still a restraint on innovation. Money going to licensing can't be spent on salaries.

If we assume free licensing then you might as well cut out the middle man and abolish patents.

Can the license holder set any price they want? Essentially blocking access with an absurdly high paywall? Or is there some kind of standard?

Yes, or they can refuse to license it to you at all.

The causality probably goes in the opposite direction. Countries without IP don't care much about protecting it. Countries with IP care about protecting it.

A case in point is China. It used to just produce low-value-added manufactured products, and it had little IP protection to speak of. But as China has moved up the value chain, it has passed IP laws and built out a court system to enforce them. It has rapidly become one of the most active venues for IP litigation in the world. But if there were no Chinese R&D to protect, there would be little reason for China to build out this system.

Citation needed. Historically this has not been true (I pointed to a famous example with pharmaceuticals further up) and it is also not true for companies, i.e. companies that patent a lot do usually not have the highest R&D budgets relatively.

Assuming that statistic is true, how do you know countries with more innovation don't just end up producing big corporations that lobby for more control over ideas that they don't want to compete for?

Just because the patent system has some problems doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any value. These troll patents might contain a high number of ideas you might just casually come up with, but the actually valuable ones tend to be comprised of innovative ideas that usually require significant R&D investment to come up with. Without patents there’s very little incentive to invest in coming up with those ideas. A lot of the time the people who come up with the patent have no intention or capability to bring products to market, so unless you want 100% of research to be completely controlled by commercial interests, you probably want to have patents.

You’re also ignoring what the patent is actually awarded for. The temporary monopoly is awarded in return for publicly disclosing your invention. Without patents you’d expect almost all commercial innovation to center around ideas that can be kept a trade secret, and to have a lot more budget devoted to protecting trade secrets. It would essentially be the exact opposite of what I expect you’d want to happen.

  > The temporary monopoly is awarded in return for publicly disclosing your invention. 
Reading patents is perhaps one of the WORST and most inefficient ways to discover "new ideas". Even ignoring the turgid legal language, the actual central ideas of the patents are either so vague they're useless or they apply to utterly obsolete scenarios or they just poorly describe something that has already been in existence/usage before, during, and after the patent's existence.

We could do just fine WITHOUT the patent system. Maybe if instead of fretting about diligent Chinese copycats, the USA and its corporations actually built stuff instead of outsourcing everything, we would not need to worry so much about patent infringement.

Not to mention, it's my understanding that tech employees are generally instructed to avoid reading patents, because if the company ever gets found in court to have infringed on the patents, then them having read the patents will be used to show wilful infringement and therefore to award triple damages.

I suppose they could read expired patents, though.

You’re really just restating the claim that we don’t need intellectual property protections, without making any attempt to explain why.

Your suggestion that the global economy could shift towards an isolationist model is frankly enough to dismiss your idea without much further scrutiny.

> ...suggestion that the global economy could shift towards an isolationist model...

Not at all. There's "global isolationism" and then there's outsourcing everything to the point where all that's left is the C-suite and a few supply-chain jockeys.

It doesn't have to be one extreme or the other.

The key word here is 'invention'. In practice we have lawyers specialized in crafting as vague and broad patents as possible, so that bogus infringements can be litigated in court.

There’s lots of problems with our current system. However the list of problems doesn’t include the existence of the system itself.

Ideas can explicitly not be patented.

"A patent cannot be obtained upon a mere idea or suggestion. The patent is granted upon the new machine, manufacture, etc., as has been said, and not upon the idea or suggestion of the new machine. A complete description of the actual machine or other subject matter for which a patent is sought is required."


He means idea in the broader sense of nonphysical concept. For example, the patent for a drug is not private property in the same way that a plot of land is. One is a physical entity which can only be owned/utilised by one person or group at a time, and another has no physical properties and can be utilised by literally every single person alive had they the inclination.

Patents/IP/etc only have 'scarcity' because the government agrees to grant a monopoly to a person or corporation. It doesn't have any basis in natural law.

Just because it's not physically present doesn't mean it's not real. Patent represents compensation for time spent researching and developing it.

Without it, you would resort to greater degrees of secrecy.

Sure, it's real, but it is not affected by scarcity. Monopolies are never a good idea, they suit oligarchs at the expense of mankind.

First-movers already have an advantage in the market, this seems to be a natural incentive for R&D. And then also consider that many innovators and inventors do what they do for reasons outside of gaining monetary compensation.

Any consequences of greater secrecy would be largely overshadowed by the advantage of having an actually competitive market in film, tech, healthcare, and etc. Imagine if any manufacturer could produce insulin, or if any film student could shoot their own Star Wars movie.

I'm on a few dumb software patents and they always start with "a server configured to..." given how close software patents are to ideas.

This is the party line, but it just isn't true. Patents are obtained & enforced on ideas all the time, especially in software. PMC is enforcing a patent on the idea of DRM, on the idea of error-correction in streaming video. They never implemented either (beyond a prototype which may or may not have had these features, and never sold).

> "Hey everyone, I thought of this and wrote it down, none of you wrote it down before so now it's my idea for the next 30 years"

In this case you are right, it stiffles progress instead of helping it.

But what about the case where "Hey, it took us 20 manyears of research to discover this, and when we release it, it's up for grabs for anyone"

In that case, you want to have a patent system so the research can have a ROI.

But the latter case never happens in software, and so I'm very happy Europe doesn't have any software patents.

Didn’t mpeg work with patents and licenses?

... I guess it’s not really necessary to have patents in order to sell licenses, and I guess in most cases for software, patents are used as a moat for a business rather than getting a direct ROI on research.

People on here are generally exposed to ridiculous side of patenting, with high publicity marginal cases that make headlines. A lot of patents are way beyond an idea written on a napkin and are the outcomes of significant R&D expenses.

Not to mention the poorly qualified or downright unethical Intellectual Property(IP) industry which makes the uninformed spend thousands of dollars in the patent process without proper prior art search, only for the patent authority to later dismiss the application i.e. if the the patent authority is competent or else award the patent which ends up with a troll.

If you are not from an industry where IP is unfortunately the foundation for doing business e.g. Pharma, Bio Tech; You are better off not pursuing IP at all, at least if you cannot afford the best IP attorney in your jurisdiction and assuming you have a competent patent authority.

Uhm, I used to think that patents are a monopoly on a certain implementation of an idea, not the idea itself. If you own a patent of a video codec, that doesn't make you automatically owner of all codecs of the world. Am I wrong?

> One shouldn't be forced to share their ideas.

Patents were designed as a way of allowing people to share their ideas, while retaining the ability to profit from their ideas for a limited period.

I agree that we allow patents for things today that aren't novel but patents do allow a single person to build a company around an idea. By having some protection for a time, they have time to recoup research costs and build something sustainable.

Without them, billionaires could just monitor the market and essentially just steal the business because they have the capital to leverage economies of scale. How do you prevent this without patents? What is your better idea?

Patents are a way to encourage sharing ideas.

You can always monopolize an unknown idea. Don't share it.

But "so now it's my idea" just means "now only I can produce this thing commercially, unless I give you permission".

The alternative is "only I can produce this thing commercially, and you have no idea how I made it anyway".

Companies like this don't produce anything commercially, didn't actually invent anything, and their patents are so vague and general that no one is any more informed about how to make anything.

"Either the patent system is about encouraging and rewarding innovation and then it should apply to anyone equally, or it is not and we should abolish it"

I am very firmly in the second camp, too. But it still leaves the question: how do inventors get money?

In the long run, I hope for more consciousness on a broader base - so people and organisation just directly support inventors with money, they think are worth supporting. Than we could skip all this waste of time and energy.

And as far as I know, this is happening already today. Donated cancer research for example. Also lots (if not most) of academic research is state funded and when you define the state not as a stealing feudal opressive system, but as the self-organisation of people - you can say, that people are choosing today to give lots of their money into research.

But for common tech? On a broader scale as of today? I am sceptical on how to make that transition.

I guess people could do try to get crowdfunding campaigns for their new revolutionizing research - but the common inventor is not a PR and social media expert - and you need to be, if you want to have common peoples attention.

Is it really innovative if you do not implement it? I don't mean market it and make it successful, I mean just implement it. Because if the "inventor" can't implement the process described in the patent, it's not really a useful invention, is it?

I was part of litigation in the 1990s where some guy had a patent on an “electronic offertory box” for use in churches. It had been granted in the 1980s. The claims made no mention of computer networking let alone “The Internet”. Yet in 1996 he successfully sued my employer and related groups that had developed a "disaster relief" web site because it offered the ability to make electronic donations (i.e. GoFundme, but to the specific non–profit). He "won" because the parties involved found it was going to be too expensive to defend.

Now, I didn't know about the patent.

I had no way of knowing about the patent.

There literally was no way for me to have found the patent, reviewed it, and decided "yeah, an electronic offertory box is absolutely the inspiration for accepting a credit card payment online directed to a charity, and I'm going to steal that sucker". Patents were abstract things that got filed away in a basement in Washington, they were not available online, only in Lexis/Nexis sorts of electronic services that peons were not granted access to.

At my company, people like me were advised NEVER to review patents ourselves due to the jeopardy we could place ourselves in if we implemented something that might be found to infringe a patent, intentions being irrelevant.

In the end the guy got paid off, and the disaster relief site got shut down less than a year later because once he got his pay off other "innovators" started filing cases and the non–profit we were working with decided it wasn't worth the effort if they were simply diverting charitable funds to anyone who could file a patent infringement claim.

Software patents are completely useless to me as an implementor. The processes described are so vague as to be useless to solve the problems I encounter, and the claims are so broad as to cover anything related to the field of the invention. And the ever expanding pool of people who can be targeted for infringement (oh, I see you use a laser printer in your office? You're infringing these 11,000 patents. Please pay up) just means the whole enterprise is a scam.

ARM is a good example of innovation without implementation.

> There literally was no way for me to have found the patent

If it is patented, there is a way to find it. It certainly isn't a useful way of spreading information, but it exists, and its existence makes your claim sound hyperbolic.

It’s absolutely hyperbole, in the same way the Vogons clearly published the development of the interstellar bypass In a closet behind a door labeled something like “tiger, do not enter”.

How, precisely, would you have determined that an online donation to a charity usinga web site in 1995 would violate a patent for an electronic offertory box written and granted before the web existed? Remember, you can only use Lexis/Nexis or the U.s. PTO offices, the patent corpus is not available to the public on the web.

This is a false dichotomy if I ever saw one. The fight is not between the ones that legitimately use patents and those that've merely bought (or created) them to make money off of the IP itself.

There are, in fact, four alternatives here and not two:

1. Producing company, legitimate patents; 2. Producing company, illegitimate patents; 3. Non-producing company, legitimate patents; 4. Non-producing company, illegitimate patents.

What I think grinds most people's gears are #4 suing #1 (or #3, though I don't think _this_ is common.)

So your attempt at making this out to be a (false) choice between #1+2 on the one hand and #3+4 on the other is disingenuous.

There are several problems with your argument.

1. How do you distinguish legitimate and illegitimate patents. I guess you have to agree on some arbiter, like courts of law. So that's how we are in the current situation

2. Notwithstanding the issue around deciding between them, most larger patent holders have a huge portfolio of "clearly" legitimate and illegitimate patents, and they are using both (you don't need to sue to use the patent, just threats are enough)

3. If you ever spoken to a patent lawyer, the whole process is about making the patent as broad as possible without disclosing how to actually do it (at least if you are using the technology yourself). So one might argue it's about making the patent as illegitimate as possible, because then the patents are actually useful (otherwise they are just to easily worked around) .

Patents need to be discriminated based on some threshold of originality or something similar. My country even has a term for it "verkshöjd" that is applied in this context. That way you don't get trolls trying to sue Amazon for "Way to sell merchandise using a >>computer network>>."

Of course there's no easy way to distinguish _all_ patent (applications) this way but that one would not be accepted.

The issues you raise are certainly valid and reasonable but notwithstanding not the point of contention here. The trolling part is the one that comes from what is perceived as illegitimate claims/ patents.

I believe most of the time 1 and 3 applies to the same company (if it is big enough) simultaneously because companies want to be one move ahead of their competitors.

> Why is it OK for huge companies like apple, IBM, Google... to use the patent system to keep out any competitors or newcomers

[citation needed]

Specifically, Oracle notwithstanding, big tech companies have used patent portfolios defensively. Take Google as one example. When has Google filed a patent infringement lawsuit against any company (other than as a countersuit after getting sued eg Sonos)?

Many internet companies, including Google, have used patents only defensively (so far). However, there are plenty of tech companies that do assert patents offensively, including Apple, IBM, Qualcomm (famously), Oracle, and lots of others.

Qualcomm and Oracle are clearly bad actors. IBM? Probably. But I have no idea honestly.

But Apple? The only patent suit I'm aware of that they initiated was against Samsung and this is a little more complicated.

First, it was primarily a design patent suit. I'm a little more sympathetic to design patents than software patents (which I'm 100% against). And, let's face it, Samsung did pretty much just rip off the iPhone. There were some non-design patents thrown in there too, that's true.

But the commenter I replied to suggested these tech companies were using patents to squash smaller competitors. And for most companies that isn't true. Even if you choose to include Apple in a list of companies that use patents offensively rather than defensively, Samsung isn't really a small competitor, so the point stands.

Apple sued Samsung with scroll bounce back effect. Yes Samsung is a big player, but the lawsuit means other developers also avoid to implement same thing.


The main difference is that those huge companies can potentially be kept at bay with defensive patents. They have at least some skin in the game in playing stupid games with stupid patents because they could find themselves on the receiving end of these frivolous lawsuits. There is no such defense against patent trolls, only court victory, legal reform, or extrajudicial penalties (e.g. reputational).

> In fact bogus patents help established companies even more, because the trolls at least have to defend those patents in court at times, a small new player who is threatened by a large established one over some bogus patent can't afford to defend themselves.

At one point when Microsoft was still in the phone business, I recall an article pointing out that Microsoft made more money off android in a single year (unspecified patents in a patent deal with google[1]) than they made out of their own mobile OS in its entire lifespan.

[1] My memory may be inaccurate, but I seem to recall that they did the patent shakedown without ever specifying exactly which patents android were infringing. There was a lot of speculation that it was the FAT patents, butu I don't recall ever seeing it being disclosed.

I think you might be referring to the patents from Nokia. These are licensed on FRAND terms. Nokia was one of the original inventors of GSM and owns a considerable patent portfolio especially on the network tech.

Well, MS also went after other rubbish like exfat from what I remember. Until last year, that is, when they discovered their love for linux.

I don't think MS ever owned the Nokia communication patents. They only took over the phone and devices business. Nokia the telecom and information technology company still lives and bought (merged with) Alcatel who had previously bought Lucent.

Bell labs (who is doing a lot of telecom R&D) for example is owned by Nokia now (it's called Nokia Bell labs)

> The whole notion that patents are only legitimate if you build something is completely bogus. Either the patent system is about encouraging and rewarding innovation and then it should apply to anyone equally, or it is not and we should abolish it.

That's a sophism, it's not either theses possibilities.

For me patents protect someone building something innovative, to later on profit from what he builds. It's not to reward innovation, it's to protect your capacity to build that innovation and sell it. It's not how patent troll use it, thus I disagree with their use.

> but it is not ok for smaller inventors to sell their patents to some of these "trolls" who then sue the big companies for violating the patents?

Why would it be? How is that beneficial to innovation?

Nobody here said either that it was right to use the patent system to keep out any competitors or newcomers either... it's right to keep competitors out while you build it/sell it at first, but it's not right to use it purely to keep competitors out.

Looking at the article, it looks like if the patent holder John Harvey had spent his post-Yale life simply resting and investing in the S&P 500, then the "infringing" technology in question would have happened just fine with out him. And Mr. Harvey would probably have been richer doing that, too.

> The whole notion that patents are only legitimate if you build something is completely bogus.

It's not bogus. It's actually the only thing that justifies the mere existence of patents. If it doesn't enable better products for us then what's the point? Deviations from this social contract should not be tolerared, especially net-negative activity such as rent seeking by trolling companies and individuals.

We need some serious patent reform, especially in the software sphere.

I'd like to see: -- All software patents expire after 5 years -- All software patents must be actively used in a revenue producing product (yearly), if not the patent expires -- All software patents are NON-transferable only licensable -- All software patents must make their licensing rates public per patent with no special deals

I agree that patent abuse and IP abuse extends beyond trolls. That's one of the reasons I started Letters Patent -- and that's why I linked to Cory Doctorow's piece outlining Apple's long history of IP abuse.

Agree. Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too.

Live by the patent, die by the patent.

I would argue if you're not bringing your idea to market, that's not innovation. It's the opposite, you're blocking innovation.

Patents stop other people from creating useful stuff. I think it's reasonable that you should have to fill the gap in order to retain the right to stop them. Although enforcing that is difficult.

And Apple is no stranger to bogus patents (eg the infamous round corner patent)

That is a design patent that falls in the same category as the shape of a coke bottle and are related to ornamental design on an object that has practical utility.

They fall in a different subsection of patent law than the way to implement something.



An entire industry has sprung up in Texas specifically around the extortion of actual technology companies -- which almost always exist in other states -- and it has been profoundly corrupting.


This May 2017 SC ruling should have fixed a lot of that:


The Western District (containing Austin, TX) is now having a run for its money. https://www.law360.com/trials/articles/1361545/intel-verdict...

Apple is very reluctant to put all of their heart in patent battles, to the point you start wondering if maybe internal patent attorneys are calling the shots and like the status quo a little too much.

They pretty much intentionally lost S3TC patent case opting not to push for patent invalidation https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/itc-judge-rules-tha... The thing about s3tc is _its Apple own technology_, just renamed and repurposed.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S3_Texture_Compression "This mode operates similarly to mode 0xC0 of the original Apple Video codec." is an understatement. S3 directly lifted Apple patented QuickTime Road Pizza technique of encoding 4 colors using 2 values (same math, same values, same purpose, no prior art acknowledgment), to ~10 years later sue and win.

Pretty strange world where losing 300mil to this lot is a net win to maintain the hostile patent environment against their competitors.

I guess it’s pretty similar to Apple acquiring the patents and then suing competitors.. but without all the ill will that directly suing companies off a weak base brings. Bit sad that it all rationally makes sense.

> S3 directly lifted Apple patented QuickTime Road Pizza technique of encoding 4 colors using 2 values (same math, same values, same purpose, no prior art acknowledgment), to ~10 years later sue and win.

This seems like the type of thing that an amicus brief could point out regardless of Apple's strategy in the case. Did that not happen?

>>They pretty much intentionally lost S3TC patent case opting not to push for patent invalidation

Do you have any inside knowledge or just guessing the strategy of the lawyers in the courtroom?

They didnt even try to file a case with USPTO's Patent Trial and Appeal Board. Their iPhone "strategy" was avoiding the matter altogether, stripping S3TC assets and support from the software (still in the SoC).

Every so often a patent troll story comes up on HN, and people like me bitch about how broken the system is and get group therapy from shouting into the wind on a web forum.

What can we actually do. How do we start fixing this problem?

>What can we actually do. How do we start fixing this problem?

Do the hard grunt work of getting enough of a broad base of political support for Congress to enact reform. Seriously, that's what it comes down to. And it's not some impossible thing even for a minority so long as it's focused. Precisely because majorities don't really pay much attention to such things and these days are fairly fixed, even a fraction of a percentage of the vote that always votes and will do so based on a single or very small set of issues can have an outsized impact.

In this case, the goal would probably be a few very targeted things. My nomination would be 1) Eliminate software and "business method" patents entirely, with the argument that software is already covered by copyright and vague ideas shouldn't be patentable, and 2) actually fund the USPTO to a much higher degree and give it more teeth so more patents can be taken down early.

I don't think it's an impossible dream. It's an issue that doesn't fit into typical polarization, since there are major business benefits both ways. There are easy outrageous examples of patents that will strike the average person as obviously wrong. It's something Congress can do without the slightest question. There will be economic interests against it, but there are ones for it as well. And the tide has been turning a bit on IP maximalism.

I've written my Senators at least, talking about some of the personal harms I've seen as a developer. I got replies. If nothing else, everyone should do that and not just post on the internet. They certainly are unlikely to immediately change their stances, but they absolutely pay attention to letters because so few write them. If they start seeing enough people concerned about an issue, they will if nothing else give it some much higher level attention. Unfortunately I don't know of any national advocacy/lobbying organizations devoted purely to patent reform. The EFF does some good work there, but they've got a wider umbrella of critical issues to fight as well. I donate what I can to them but it'd be nice if there was some place just for this too.

Still, I hope to see some progress in my lifetime on reigning them back in from when they were invented in court in the 80s.

Would you share what you wrote to your congressman?

Or dont do patents at all.

Patents were made for a time before ubiquitous multinational corporations. If there are multiple sources of truth and markets for what is protected invention, then it greatly dilutes the power of that patent. This ends up hamstringing the countries most dependent on patenting to encourage innovation because we are still beholden to foreign interest who file their patents with the USPO or sell to an American troll. The US is the most fastidious in their preservation of patent law despite its many flaws and this is why we will lose out most in the global turning against protected invention.

All developing nations ignore international copyright, trademark, and patent IP rights. The US did it back in the late 19th century, other nations in the early 20th, Asian nations in the late 20th century. What is happening now is nothing new.

China is now starting to enforce IP rights because as they move up the industry maturity scale, the rights become more important.

IP rights only become relevant to developed nations, where manufacturing and other primary/secondary industries become less important than service industries.

There is no "global turning against protected invention".

There is "developing vs developed nations ongoing opposing interests".

I believe you'll find that ubiquitous multinational corporations do indeed outdate the patent, by a couple hundred years.

Ubiquitous as in many? or just a few colonizing the world?

You still need patents. Healthcare is an obvious example, if we eliminated patents we'd have 0 new drugs pass FDA approval over the next decade.

But software is very different from medical patents.

Actually, there is pretty strong evidence that patents are counterproductive for pharmaceuticals. Before the harmonization of IP laws, pharmaceuticals had different eligibility for patenting in the US, Europe and Switzerland. The US had the strongest, Europe somewhat weaker and in Switzerland it was inelligible. The Swiss companies invested the most money into R&D and were generally the most successful. The US ones were the leas successful and did the least R&D and instead invested much more into lawyers and marketing.

Did the Swiss companies choose not to patent medication in other countries? It could just be that the market in Switzerland was small enough so that there was a gentleman's agreement not to copy the pharmaceutical.

The patent laws where you do the research doesn't matter as much as the patent laws where you're recouping the cost of your investment. And I assume those companies made 100x more money in the u.s. than Switzerland.

Funny. New drugs existed before patents were a thing.

Really? Name some. The patent system started in 1790. The FDA didn't exist, thus no expensive trials and safety validation. Medicine was just a bunch of trial and error with no controls.

Plenty of medicines existed before 1790...

...opium and extracts for pain relief, cinchona bark for malaria, cloves and clove oil for oral pain relief, I could go on, but you could also Google this.

And the fact that a "patent medicine" is a synonym in history for "snake oil" shows how little scientific rigour patents brought to medicinal development, and how the patent system was initially co-opted to lend an air of legitimacy to quackery.

Penicillin and ether were not covered by patents. Pretty sure those were two of the greatest of all time.

On the patent side you have such modern marvels as OxyContin, which has arguably caused more loss of life than COVID-19.

Patented drugs are generally awful. The idea that it costs $1B to make a game changing drug is a lie. It costs $1T. The US taxpayer pays 99.9%, and the big pharma company spends a billion to generate some shitty subpar derivative that they can then get monopoly protection on and create an artificial racket supported by false marketing.

All Opioid deaths between 1999 and 2017 were about 400k in the US. Well less than the Covid death toll in the US alone.


Average expected years left to live for a Covid death is about 11, prior to having any information on pre-existing conditions. Divide that by 2-3x once you are given pre-existing conditions.

The average Opiod death is 3x that by years alone, and more when going by expected healthspan.

Hence "loss of life" and not "deaths".

> Patented drugs are generally awful. The idea that it costs $1B to make a game changing drug is a lie. It costs $1T. The US taxpayer pays 99.9%, and the big pharma company spends a billion to generate some shitty subpar derivative that they can then get monopoly protection on and create an artificial racket supported by false marketing.

This number is impossibly wrong. There were 48 new drugs brought to market in 2019. At an average cost of 1 trillion dollar per drug would mean the entire economy of both the U.S. and Europe were devoted to drug research which just isn't true.


Iirc the inventor of the Polio vaccine could've patented it, but chose not to.

How much did it cost to get FDA approval before patents existed vs now?

> You still need patents. Healthcare is an obvious example, if we eliminated patents we'd have 0 new drugs pass FDA approval over the next decade.

That's only if you look at how the system is today and evaluate as it is today.

Software mostly doesn't have patents: theres no patent to an uber, to a paypal, to an amazon. You would have a different business model to fund medical innovation, for example, advance payments from prospective patients.

Really? How about socializing all of medicine.

The patent's purpose is to incentivize innovation. Some industries need this (medical) others don't (software).

So if you got rid of patents innovation in some industries will be fine (software) and others will be wrecked (medical).

Patents are not the only way to incentivize innovation, and I think it'd be great to experiment with some other ways.

Socializing medicine is completely orthogonal to this issue. Unless you mean socializing drug discovery which would be a completely unproven way to develop drugs at scale.

It's funny, I've heard from biomed engineers that it's clear to them that patents don't work in the medical field, unlike how they're effective in the software field.

It feels like every field knows that they're a cash grab without a lot of benefits, but assumes there's some industry that they don't work in where they're needed.

Exactly this. I worked for a few years in big tech, and it was crystal clear that patents and copyrights were awful in tech. But I believed the lie that maybe in medicine, they were needed.

I spent a few years in medical research and realized that ohhhh shit, even worse in this industry.

The whole thing is a big lie.

End copyrights. End patents. The ideal length is zero. There is no case to be made to support them. We need to abolish them outright.

Drugs are much easier to copy than software programs (i.e. there's no copyright protection).

And it currently costs billions of dollars to get FDA approval.

Basically assume I find a new antidepressant. I spend 2 billion dollars proving it's safe and effective.

How do I get my money back when any drug manufacturer can now manufacture the same drug?

Not zero, but 3½ years for patents and 21 years (7+3½ per extension) for copyright is enough.

But why have them at all, especially if we’re going to shoot for arbitrary amounts of time?

I don’t buy that IP protections incentivize innovation anymore than they prevent it. The reality is that the gains from intellectual property are not distributed evenly, and corporate executives know this. If IP is making you millions of dollars, that is a very different situation from IP just “making you a living.”

Even if you are doing well as a small IP-based business, you’re still stuck paying a premium on everything you buy (thanks to the existence of IP monopolies), and you still have little recourse against IP violations from large corporations and anonymous pirates.

I just don’t get how this isn’t all an enormous waste of resources for anyone but the already rich, or a completely raw deal for people who mod games, remix music, repair electronics, etc etc.

Agree with you and well put.

One slight nit: it helps if you don't spread the big lie "intellectual property" (since it's an oxymoron). Someone here on HN told me about the term "imaginary property" which works great, because then you can still use the "IP" acronym.

There is no extension (and even filing system) for copyright. Do you want to introduce that?

Yes, and unregistered copyright would be treated as public domain.

So you write a letter and dont want it published by the recipient, you need to file? Or all software written in a company, file? What about confidential stuff, file?

Abolition of intellectual property does not mean abolition of privacy; original author will still have the right of initial publication, but once published, no privacy assumptions and no recirculation restrictions unless registered.

Under which law is the privacy of a private letter enforced?

Tesla does not make hybrids. Ab initio.

Though this is only one person's personal experience, to me this was an illuminating conversation on the state of medical device repair as a consequence of strong IP protections:


It costs close to a billion dollars to being a drug to market. Who's going to spend that kind of money if there's no patent protection?

The problem is that there is no way to experiment with other ways of funding health care research, as the cost of doing so is set at highly entrenched monopoly prices. There is no reason for those with capital to consider alternatives when there is already so much money to be made in the existing system.

I too believe that medical innovation would be wrecked by the elimination of patents, but I think that is less to due some inevitable aspect of human nature, and more due to existing incentive structures that have been created by means of policy.

Including drug discovery? I'm very skeptical of that working out better than the current system (for drug discovery).

Our current system uses incredible amounts of public funding for drug discovery.


The article references mentions $100B over a period of 7 years, or $14B per year.

That’s a decent chunk of money, but it’s important to put it in perspective. Pfizer alone spends around $10B per year on R&D. J&J: $12B. Merck: $13B.

The coronavirus probably shows patents to be a thorny mechanism for innovation. Pfizer might have a vax patent but then can't freely make money of it. If there were no patents, but they were the best manufacturers, might have been easier to have a freer market on it.

Patents necessarily put more capital investments into patentable work than unpatentable work, but that doesnt mean it is more efficient. I understand the principle of patents, but eventually you end up in heavy interventionism, state funding, litigation, etc. Best to do away of all of that imo.

And how much of the expenditure goes anywhere useful? And remember that they're incentivized to report 15% of their revenue being spent on R&D for tax reasons.

That $100B is just for drugs that later got FDA approval, not the NIH grant budget.

If you’re going to make that argument, you also have to consider the opposite possibility: I’ve worked on (non-medical) projects with public funding in the past. One can only hope that my experience wasn’t representative for the amount waste of public money in the medical world.

If you are the CTO of Microsoft you set up the world's largest patent troll after you leave Microsoft.


I guess if you are a tech CTO, you don't beat them, you join them.

The sad part of Myhrvold's troll company is that it quickly spilled over into sectors other than software and "tech". Sectors that did not necessarily have the same knee-jerk negative reaction to the patent system (because despite its flaws, they depended on it).

Companies like Apple, AMZN, MSFT, have enough resources and money to change the system but it wouldn't benefit them in the end. A few hundred million might seem like a lot to us but it's trivial to them. Sure they will defend themselves, they've got a lot of Lawyers on payroll that need to do something to earn their salaries.

I can't imagine the carnage they could collectively unleash on the Judge, Jury, County, State, etc if they really wanted to? But it isn't worth the time, money or effort. At the end of the day it's just pay the "Parking Ticket" and move on.

Strategically, it is a barrier to entry for small competitors who can't afford the legal defense.

That doesn't mean that Apple and Google are intentionally trying to preserve the legal environment for patent trolls to operate, but on some level it still is in their interest.

They know at some point they will play the role of the troll

Support Electronic Frontier Foundation: https://www.eff.org/issues/patents.

I've wondered that too.

How can we realistically boycott the companies that abuse patents? I suppose I could stop using Apple products, but most current software jobs require some form of smartphone for authentication, so I need an iPhone or Android phone, thus supporting Google or Samsung or LG or one of the other big megacorps that abuse the American patent system.

I feel like the only thing that could conceivably happen is to fight fire with fire, and start suing these companies and challenging these patents to a point where it's so expensive for them that they lobby congress to regulate it better. Even still, I have doubts that that would even work, since it's still probably more profitable for them to keep all their ridiculous patents than the loss in legal fees.

The megacorps are forced to file many patents for defensive purposes, either for protection against each other or the NPEs. Technical bulletins, disclosures, and scientific publications showing the obviousness of ridiculous NPE patents just don't seem to be enough. The juries must be receiving bad info on what to do.

> for protection against each other or the NPEs

Unfortunately, a patent portfolio doesn't protect against NPEs. A patent portfolio lets a company settle patent disputes with cross-licensing deals, or counter-sue with a "no you" argument.

An NPE doesn't have a product, so there's no reason to cross-license, and no way their product can violate any other patent.

> How can we realistically boycott the companies that abuse patents?

You mean law firms?

Most patent trolls don’t make or sell anything. There’s nothing to boycott.

> What can we actually do. How do we start fixing this problem?

Write draft legislation that would fix the problem. Propose this to your country's legislature (Congress in the US, Parliament, etc).

Push for the new law.

Form or join an organization that writes and pushes for legislation that will fix the patent law mess.


Fascinating, thank you! I hadn't thought of that, but that's the kind of audacious (even outrageous) thing that while extremely unlikely to happen, it could. I like the way you think!

Watch The Patent Scam, by the X-Plane's (flight simulator) founder Austin Meyer.


I always find "watch this documentary" to be pointless. If the person's already convinced that patent abuse is bad, they don't need to watch a 2 hour video to reconfirm their beliefs. If the person is sitting on the fence or not convinced, there are better ways to provide information to them than getting them to stare at a screen for 2 hours.

If that was the only solution presented I would agree, but in an online forum with several other answers someone providing an overly detailed source is handy. Most people may not be interested, but some might be.

I disagree with your general sentiment. The people here reading these comments may be on the fence. Maybe they're leaning one way or another. Maybe they need some more convincing. Someone who wants to learn more can benefit greatly from a documentary or a good article on the subject. And these comments don't just exist in this moment. They will be available in search for a long time to come.

I'm not sure a movie called "The patent scam" is going to be seen as an unbiased, convincing source by any fence sitter.

Why does it has to be unbiased?

Alas, there's no such thing as unbiased.

>Alas, there's no such thing as unbiased.

So basically, neutrality nihilism? ie. "every source is biased so it doesn't matter whether I'm getting my climate change facts from the IPCC or InfoWars".

No. It's more along the lines of:

It doesn't make sense to give conspiracy theorists any space for the sake of neutrality.

I agree with this.

But this is different to conspiracy theorists. There is a range of reasonable, good faith positions to take on this issue (eg, some on this discussion advocate the abolishment of copyright - not just patents - which is a position many in the software industry would disagree with).

Collective action isn't going to help with trolls with the resources (and case) to go up against Apple, but should kill off a lot of the frivolous "it's cheaper to license than fight" patent licensing demands. If a troll knows a license demand issued to a particular company will meet with the entire industry pooling resources to invalidate the patent they're trying to individually claim royalties for, it suddenly becomes an unprofitable business model (or at least, very unprofitable to demand licenses from companies participating in the scheme). Fundable since "patent insurance" is already a thing companies budget for, and probably doesn't require any legal changes to work.

Think carefully about who you vote for. Get involved in the process- like anything unless you actually really care and have the means or can turn it into your means most likely you will move onto something else...

The problem is I'm pretty sure this needs to be fixed at the national legislative level. There are somewhere between few and no electable congressional candidates who actually care enough about patents to stand up to lobbying. And there are very few people outside the microcosm of the tech community who care enough about patent reform to prioritize it above other mainstream issues. So what's the practical game plan that doesn't take 20+ years?

You tie it to something strategic, even if it the relationship is loose.

We have a chip shortage right? And an American manufacturing crisis, right?

"We need to eliminate trolling waste and abuse for national security. In Asia they don't have this dysfunction and we're ceding ground to adversaries simply to make lawyering trolls rich!"

That can work for the 1-3 top issues in the country.

This issue is maybe in the top 1000.

The patent problem is only the tip the iceberg, if you are unlucky or observant enough you will notice that several other things are broken like health care or housing.

All this points to larger problem that many thinkers are in denial, that is of humans themself. Humans in general are terribly flawed and that problem can be only marginally alleviated with laws, activism etc.

Apple apparently has 308 million dollars of incentives to fix the system, so maybe that’s a good start.

But they also won $500m+ from Samsung using the same system. Not to mention the defensive position it gives them. It seems like an overwhelmingly net positive for Apple.

Don't try to fix hard large-scale political problems. Fix easy local problems.

Or invest in seasteading.

Start adding a "Patent troll advance recovery fee" line item to your bills (even if it is just a break-out of the total cost), even for minor items and SaaS transactions so people see the impact to their own wallet.

Create a startup, have a multi-billion dollar exit, then use some hundreds of millions for lobbying

The patent problem is only the tip the iceberg, if you are unlucky or observant enough you will notice that several other things are broken like health care or housing. All this points to larger problem that many thinkers are in denial, that is of humans themself. Humans in general are terribly flawed and that cannot be fixed with laws.

Like most major structural issues, nothing.

What do people turn to when the legal system fails them?

> What do people turn to when the legal system fails them?

This doesn't mean anything. It's just cynicism masquerading as fatalism. We thankfully don't live in an absolutist monarchy. Laws can change, and in fact do change all the time. Election upsets happen all the time. But like a sibling comment said, no one wants to actually go out and do the grunt work.

Whining on Twitter is certainly easier than canvassing a neighborhood.

Big lies are labels spread widely without backing datasets. One thing everyone can do is start spreading a big truth (a label not widely shared but that fits a plethora of data far better): copyrights and patents are the opposite of property rights. One better description for IP is #imaginaryproperty. People who support them should be shamed. Because of IP bad medicine is encouraged, bad news is encouraged, bad inequity is encouraged, bad education is encouraged.

Equitable progress (and progress in general), is a fraction of what it could be.

Changing this one rule and shifting our energies from endlessly regurgitating old ideas to gardening great new ones will lead to a golden era of progress in area like healthcare, education, and equity.

#EndIp. #LiberateIdeas. Start sharing big truths and fight big lies. The people will pick up on it.

Don't work with/for companies that use patents. Don't consent to companies using your work to file patents. If they do anyway, publish prior art where possible.

Write down and publish as many things as possible to enable prior art searches. If an important case affects a field you've been working on for decades, actively help victims find prior art.

Consistently vote against IP maximalists wherever you have an opportunity. Don't have relationships with IP maximalists.

Remind the general public about how bad and stupid patents are when you have the opportunity.

Don't buy products that advertise using "patented technology" or "patent pending". If you have no choice, buy used.

If you are in control of a company's patent strategy, file lots of provisional patents then abandon them, so they show up in the database when patent examiners search for prior art.

Financially support victims of patent attacks and help them get as many patents invalidated as possible.

Our current IP system is remarkable in that it is both very complex and, despite that complexity, it is entirely reducible to a system for allocating fees for entities to pay. Using you own IP? You pay your fees to your legal team. Using IP owned by someone else? Pay your legal team and their legal team and them. Except for the situation where you are much larger than the IP owner - then they get nothing from you and pay their normal fees to their legal team.

There's a cottage industry of infringement on social media where 'enterprising' companies outside the US take art they don't own and put it on merchandise. Large brands routinely duplicate small artist styles or simply trace their work. Often single individuals at the larger company choose to illegally copy the work of another, but the bulk of the benefit accrues to the corporation.

Personally, though I am a software engineer and much of my "property" is intellectual, the whole system feels wrongly conceived. It focuses on allowing commercial activity to continue around IP instead of keeping creators in control of their creations. In general, the best way to make money is to excise any humans from the IP as quickly as possible (like cutting away an un-wanted growth) to best shape the IP for future needs and markets. It sucks, even if I understand all the decisions along its path.

The purpose of IPR is not to "keep[ing] creators in control of their creations". It's to "promote the progress of science and useful arts". That's the whole point, to "allow... commercial activity to continue around IP".

Creators are given a limited period of monopoly over the rights for reproduction and use of expression (copyright), ideas (patents), branding (trademark) to allow them to earn some return on their creations, but at the same time put the expression, ideas or branding into the public domain.

Copyright terms have been bastardized by Disney et al and author estates to extend the terms beyond anything reasonable.

Patent trolls and an unfunded USPTO and compliant court districts have bastardized patents.

Your are equivocating patents and copyright, which are both IPR and yet worlds apart. There is some similarity in that both have their purposes and both are clearly being abused by some actors.

At the risk of losing some karma here... and prefacing this with: I hate these patent trolls, they go entirely against my senses... I am wondering: is there a charitable view on the "other side" of this that I'm not seeing, in which these people have some (perhaps weird) way of morally justifying this practice?

I finally heard a good argument in support of "patent trolls" from a friend who has a few patents. It was something like this:

"The little guys can't fight legal battles with large corporations. So either you work with lawyers that are labeled patent trolls or you lose your patent by default by lack of defending it. Or you can go broke fighting in court."

It was the first time I had considered the possibility that there may be more at play here and that I couldn't see all sides clearly.

How is this argument remotely good?

These lawyers, and more importantly, these shell companies, are being labeled as patent trolls because they're filing nonsense patents and then spraying nonsense lawsuits around to try to capture random prey. They're not the vanguard of "protecting the little guy."

The idea that making it easy for bad patents to be defended is somehow good is ridiculous. It ignores the possibility that the patent office, the legislature, and the courts need to improve so that good patents are protected but bad patents aren't a drain on society.

Of course the argument doesn't seem any good if you completely misunderstand it..

Let's say you're a small player with a legitimate patent. A huge entity is infringing. In order to make any money of your invention, you have to fight. But that can be very costly and risky. Instead, you sell your patent to someone specialized in this, a "patent troll". You get some money, they use their expertise to fight the big player.

Like selling someone's debt to a collector so at least you get some money.

Ok, I see, you're just saying the NPE is justified, and not the rest of the patent troll system.

I would agree with your assessment. The system sucks all around, but there is at least some value for small time patent owners.

The problem isn't really NPEs. If it makes sense to have patents, then it probably makes sense to have a market in patents. The problem is mostly low-quality patents and the fact that the patent system is a poor fit for software.

The way the US patent system works compared to other countries is that it's closer to copyright (though not quite copyright): any crappy idea can be patented as long as there's no prior art. The burden of proof is on those who own the patent and those who want to challenge it on court. The Bureau registers everything and then lets the businesses fight in courts.

This approach gives the US an advantage on the international patent market too: an American patent holder has the priority rights in other countries where it wishes to register the same patent.

All this kind of makes sense - kind of - but in practice there seem to be a lot of crappy patents with prior art that remain unchallenged and sometimes even confirmed in courts despite prior art.

This is what's broken. 1-click checkout shouldn't have been registered not because it's crappy but because there were web sites doing something very close or even similar under a different name. Those businesses either never bothered, were too small or went out of business by the time Amazon could be challenged in courts. I believe there are many more examples like this.

Someone has to take the burden of identifying prior art. The PTO doesn't seem to be interested, it's just extra work for them which as a govt. agency they tend to minimize. Businesses that could present prior art can be too small or even out of business by the time a patent is registered.

I believe it's a matter of some additional regulations but because I'm not a lawyer I can't really say how to fix this system.

I mean, sort of like it depends.

Some of these NPE bought those patents from previous PE that actually put the work on some of those innovation. That could be from Video Codec, 3G/4G Telecom Spec, Wireless Spec etc. I think those tends to have some merit. They never stayed around long enough to have a return of investment on their R&D. So patent is part of those asset, they should be of some value.

Whether you agree the price for those patents is entirely different. Although you could also argue those are bogus patent with no value.

It is also worth mentioning companies tend to file and fill as much patents as possible to some sort of spec in order to gain at least some form of ROI. The reason being the thing / part they work on for years may never had made it to the spec, but in the process of competing they might have made the official spec better. So despite their tools not ending up within the spec they might still want to get as much from the patent pool as part of their work.

Again, whether they are asking for too much of it is somewhat a different question. If you spend enough time on HN in the past few years most people would think 4G and 5G patents are absurd and Qualcomm is evil. I tend to hold a contrarian view they are not. ( At least not as evil as most would think )

What I cant stand is things like "Single Button Purchase" Patent from Amazon. I give some benefit of doubt to pull to refresh from Twitter. But single button purchase is .... I dont have a word to explain it. Although there may be people who disagree with me and think a single button purchase is genius.

Exploiting the letter of the law is the best way to prove the consequences of the law.

Now, one thing buried near the end of the article and something which I have seem very little discussion here about: The patents in question are from 1995. So why are the patents valid until 2027 and 2030, since patents, these days, are only valid for 20 years after filing.

These particular patents are a kind of submarine patent based on a particular abuse of the patent system: Someone files a patent, which means they get a monopoly on an idea. But they delay the granting of the patent. This way, they can wait until the idea they came up with is being used in some form by large companies before the patent gets granted, then they have 17 years when they can sue anyone and everyone who implements their idea from 1995.

Now, as it turns out, in 1995 the patent office changed their practice to stop this very particular type of abuse: Patents, starting in mid-1995, are valid for 20 years from date they were filed, not 17 years after the patent was granted.

However, this particular company, back in 1995, filed a large number of patents right just before that practice was changed, then delayed the patents in the Google lawsuit being granted until 2010 or 2013, allowing them to have a monopoly on a 1981 or 1995 idea from 2010 until 2027, or 2013 until 2030.

What needs to be done, in this particular case, is have congress pass a law saying that, for any and all patents filed in 1995 or sooner, every single one of those patents are now expired (or better yet, retroactively expire them in 2015, i.e. 20 years after 1995).

Barring an act of congress, maybe when this case is appealed, higher courts will give us a precedent which invalidates those old 1995 patents still being enforced here in 2021.

A parasite resulting from society's outdated patent laws, with a simple fix.

1. Only make practicing entities eligible for IP damages.

2. Reduce the duration of all patents by 50%.

You should read the article. The patents are from 1981 (and to a lesser extent 1995). It explains how they get around the typical patent limitations which are usually not more than 20 years.

The solution is the same. Submarine patents shouldn't exist.

I agree, but they stopped making them 25 years ago. This company is taking advantage of legacy laws. You couldn't replicate this business model today because it's already been outlawed.

Congress should just invalidate all submarine patents, full stop.

When the 13th amendment was passed slave owners didn't get to "grandfather in" their existing slaves. Extreme example, but the point is sometimes old laws are so harmful to society we should not allow people to continue abusing them.

You're absolutely right, however let's note that no rational person would conclude that Apple actually infringed on any invention of this patent troll. This case should have gone nowhere, and the plaintiffs should have been sent home with a bill for the defense's legal counsel.

I mentioned in another comment about the Eastern District of Texas which became effectively a giant grift operation (though a recent SC case should put a damper on it). Plaintiffs sought it because they knew the jury pool would also be people who benefit from this extraordinarily corrupt, banana republic extortion racket. It was effectively like a forgettable little drive-through town that setup speed traps and decided to fund the municipality on the backs of outsiders.

There are some people who would counter this. For instance one paper notes that of jury trials, 73% of East Texas cases choose for the plaintiff, versus 68% elsewhere, "proving" that it isn't that much of a difference. The problem with this reasoning, however, is that East Texas was specifically where the cases with no merit went. It was overloaded with patent trolls and NPEs.

Actual, credible cases were seldom tried in East Texas.

Every judgment of that district should be vacated.

Yes, just reading a couple of paragraphs of this story reveals the obvious corruption, incompetence, or both, of the court room this took place in.

It's ironic to use the xenophobic slur "banana republic" to describe a US Federal Court in Texas.

No idea when banana republic became a "xenophobic slur." It's a pretty well understood term describing a country (or sub-jurisdiction in this example) that is so dependent on a foreign-controlled company or industry that it can be bossed around by that industry.

Pretty ridiculous how the most benign of terms all become slurs in the woke era.

Just don't let it become acceptable. People will try and push and make it sound like it should be obvious that banana republic(and many others) is xenophobic, but just don't accept it, fight it, point out that it's a stupid connection to make and trying to shame others for it is not what modern society should be doing.

The banana republics were originally actual countries south of USA (like Colombia) that were actually manipulated by banana producing multinationals.

That's not what xenophobic means.

You might want to look up the etymology of "grandfather clause", friend.

TIL, thanks. It's regrettable we're still fighting that war.

So you're a small startup with no sales trying to build a prototype, but you patented your idea so that you get a priority date, and also because a patent is the first thing investors want to see to know that your idea won't just be copied by anyone else. Now you just get run over by the big boys?

Now you're in the same situation, but you sell your patent to another entity because you can't afford yourself to sue the big boys for damage. You or anyone else you delegate should have no recourse at all?

I'd support a short (relative to the patent term) grace period to become a practicing entity. If you create a reduction to practice, you are a practicing entity. If you file a patent but can't actually build the thing (or maybe it can't be built) -- this happens all too often, by the way -- then I don't see why they should hold on to their failed patent, only for it to be scooped up by some patent troll for pennies on the dollar and eventually clog our legal system and extract fees from real value producers.

Ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is what matters. IP has value and should be incentivized, but right now, the legal system weighs the legal application for an idea far too heavily, and so alas, patent trolls exist.

Execution can depend a lot on the amount of capital you have available in the first place.

Imagine a startup trying to develop a very expensive solid state LIDAR. They don't have the millions in funds to go to a fab and go into production. They do shitty prototypes. But they get some attention and are able to sell/license their patents. In this alternative universe where patent law is much weaker:

1. The big corp can choose to ignore you and not buy or license the patents. Their defense will be that you are a non-practising entity since you have no revenues or customers. There is a grace period? They make the bet that they can just wait you out.

2. You never patent the idea in the first place. There is no point as there is no way for you to profit from the idea. The world never get access to the tech.

I'm pretty sure this exact scenario has happened, but instead of going the patent route, the startup got acquired and they all got nice retirement packages from Google (Waymo).

If they can't find anyone to invest in them, are they the ones to execute the idea? Btw, they could sell patents to practicing entities (those who immediately choose to become practicing entities of the patent) and still get compensation for their IP.

And your scenario does not exist, frankly, where someone comes up with an idea so unique and groundbreaking, that it isn't rediscovered for longer than the duration of a typical patent term. You have a couple years, tops. In fact, someone has probably already come up with the idea and you never heard of it. Execution is what matters.

Change always affects someone negatively, but I don't find your examples compelling. Patent trolls and lawyers are the real losers in this scenario, which is fine, because they are currently a net tax on value creation in the IP space.

As an european I find the american legal system baffling. I do wonder if the sentiment is reciprocal. In particular everytime I see a movie about lawyers I think that something must be broken if there is a subgenre about "how the system works in the end". That and incarceration rate. Trials suck everywhere, even if you win, but it seems it's much easier to end having one in USA.

It's the jury system that seems to be one of the craziest things about the US system. Luckily other countries don't have it, or only have it for the most serious of crimes(murder trials). Like....who ever thought that having 12 random people decide if you're guilty or not is a good idea?

"Like....who ever thought that having 12 random people decide if you're guilty or not is a good idea?"

Probably people, who experienced their share of professional, but corrupt judges, who live worlds apart from the common people they judge over.

If a verdict is supposed to represent the peoples will - doesn't it make sense to involve actual common people?

>>If a verdict is supposed to represent the peoples will - doesn't it make sense to involve actual common people?

No, because the law should be followed to the letter and "common people" are not qualified to pass judgement. Jury trials in the US just seem to be about how 12 people feel about someone, not whether law was actually broken or not. Every time I hear a case where there was no hard evidence against somebody, but the prosecutor made an impassioned case to the jury and they decide that the person is guilty I'm like.....what even is this. Why have a justice system if you're going to have this circus at the end.

Alexander Hamilton lays out some discussion of this in Federalist 83 [1]

> The friends and adversaries of the plan of the convention, if they agree in nothing else, concur at least in the value they set upon the trial by jury; or if there is any difference between them it consists in this: the former regard it as a valuable safeguard to liberty; the latter represent it as the very palladium of free government. For my own part, the more the operation of the institution has fallen under my observation, the more reason I have discovered for holding it in high estimation; and it would be altogether superfluous to examine to what extent it deserves to be esteemed useful or essential in a representative republic, or how much more merit it may be entitled to, as a defense against the oppressions of an hereditary monarch, than as a barrier to the tyranny of popular magistrates in a popular government. Discussions of this kind would be more curious than beneficial, as all are satisfied of the utility of the institution, and of its friendly aspect to liberty. But I must acknowledge that I cannot readily discern the inseparable connection between the existence of liberty, and the trial by jury in civil cases. Arbitrary impeachments, arbitrary methods of prosecuting pretended offenses, and arbitrary punishments upon arbitrary convictions, have ever appeared to me to be the great engines of judicial despotism; and these have all relation to criminal proceedings. The trial by jury in criminal cases, aided by the habeas-corpus act, seems therefore to be alone concerned in the question. And both of these are provided for, in the most ample manner, in the plan of the convention.

[1] https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed83.asp

In case you're not American or familiar with American history/government, the Federalist Papers were written following the Constitutional Convention by Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison to argue for its ratification and address much of the reasoning and arguments for/against the structure of our government (including the judiciary) as laid out in the Constitution.

This is true, but on the other hand the laws have gotten so outworldly complicated, that bringing in common people is a counterbalance to this.

And I think patent laws and law fights about them, are a circus already without naive common people.

And talking about circus

Far from perfect and

In some way, yes. The other side of this is, unfortunately, that these people are sometimes pretty inexperienced and easy to influence. I like to watch some true crime stories and quite often the people don't seem to have an "innocent until proven guilty"-approach, but rather a "if they're on trial, they're probably guilty"-approach. And then there's the famous Texas court for patent trolls.

That's not to say that judges can't make bad decisions (we have a similarly infamous court in Hamburg here in Germany), but it seems that having a jury does not necessarily make for better outcomes.

I don't see how this one district in eastern Texas can be such an outlier without some sort of oversight. Does no one find it absurd that all these patent cases go here, that the results are so consistently in the favour of the plaintiff, etc?

Seems like they've found their niche.

More lawsuits = more business lawyers = more money for local business.

But AFAIK, this has only been possible because the plaintiffs have been able to choose their venue. And in the end, it's a game of numbers.

If venues where chosen at random, I'd imagine the the whole business model would fold - simply too much risk/uncertainty.

The patent system, at least in the US, is broken and supports many actions, like patent trolling, that only benefit such vermin.

Rather than trying to make life harder for such trolls we should focus on fixing the patent system. My 2c.

There's no reason not to do both.

Fixing the system is hard while harassing a troll is a lot easier. This might lead to avoiding fixing the system altogether -- once people realize how hard it us, both technically and politically, they might stop at beating the troll solution as "good enough for now".

The most probable solution to IP trolling is likely more attainable than most, here on HN. It is also not the most elegant.

If only 1 reader here on this HN thread ends up founding a unicorn company, you will have enough money & pull to get real patent reform thru congress, if you so wish.

Go out there, make serious money, then change the world of IP. Let that be your legacy.

That's your path forward.

I'm the author of the above piece. I'm a bit late to the party here, but really appreciate the conversation——it's my first time on this site as a solo blogger (former Ars Technica writer).

For those that found this interesting——especially those that are frustrated by the current software patent system——consider subscribing. It's free, just a passion project I'm doing on the side. I think writing about & publicizing these problems is one of the ways forward to a solution, which is one of the reasons I started Letters Patent.

If you have questions about what i've covered, or suggestions about what to write about, please send them my way: joe@letterspatent.org.

I'll give my opinion as someone who holds several patents, has filed for protection internationally under the PCT, and whose business is based on proprietary technology as well:

The entire system is useless and should be abolished.

1) You can get nonsense patented if you are patient enough and keep going back to the patent offices over and over. The people who are reviewing the patents aren't in any way expert enough in the subject matter to meaningfully judge whether something is new. They should just as well issue everything that comes in the door because they aren't a meaningful block to the issuance of garbage patents. When they send back objections they are usually non-sequiturs (>90% of the time)

2) "Holding the patent gives you the right to exclude". This is useless for a small fry anyway because patent litigation is so costly that unless you are in a huge industry it will never be worth it go to court anyway.

3) The patent doesn't meaningfully put any real ideas into the public domain. The info in the patent itself is the tiniest fraction of what you'd need to know to make a working product. The useful stuff is the trade secrets and know-how. I could see this being not the case in a few select fields like biotech.

4) The system is a net drain on the economy. Big corps have to keep filing their nonsense patents to protect themselves from each other. None of these filings are adding value.

Funders like to see patents. But I think this is because they don't appreciate the weaknesses of the system.

I think we need a new definition of innovation. One that doesn't limit the potential of inventors and one that doesn't limit the future. We need shorter time spans for software given how quickly things change. We need a measure of societal good beyond dollars and cents. Our goal should be improving the life of people, not improving the profits of corporations.

I think it's mostly these NPE's. Start with companies filing hundreds of patents with no actual R&D

There may not be many, but there are some upsides. It may incentivize small inventors who believe there will be a value for their invention even if they themselves are not capable of productizing it. Shouldn’t they be rewarded by being able to sell their creation to the patent troll?

NPEs help make the market for patents more efficient -- small firms invent and have a hard time protecting their patent? They sell it to an NPE. Is the system imperfect? Probably. Worst case scenario, a big firm get frivolously sued and loses -- this is just a transfer of money from Apple to the NPE and the small inventor. Will Apple be less likely to invent as a consequence? I don't think so, but you can prove me wrong. Best case scenario, small actors are incentivized to invent and sell their ideas in the market for patents.

So why is everybody outraged? Because the lawful licensing agreements don't make it to the news. The outrageous cases do.

I don't see the problems with such non-practicing entities. They serve a legitimate purpose and advance the goal of patent laws by paying existing patent holders for their patents and suing companies for patent infringement. In this way, companies that would otherwise have to take on risks to mount an expensive lawsuit themselves can receive ready cash. If such non-practicing entities are outlawed, the inventors would never have been rewarded, and companies like Apple will likely not be held accountable for their patent infringement. Conceptually these companies can be thought of as debt buyers or debt collection agencies.

Reread the article. The "inventions" are trivial and the patents are of a sort that was banned decades ago.

That doesn't change what I said though. The "non-practicing entity" part got too much undeserved criticism. It's the submarine patent part that is really problematic.

Software patents should not exist.

As a small company, can you go to one of these patent trolls for protection? Maybe make a deal while you are still small and the fees are manageable. Go to them and say... "This is what we do. Do you have patents to protect us from lawsuits?"

Even as a big company you can do that. E.g Intellectual Ventures [1] offers such protection services.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectual_Ventures

Pretty cool. Know of any instances of one patent troll going to battle with another patent troll, to protect one of its clients?

Before I pay for protection, I want to be sure they got my back.

Maybe the value added that PMC provides is protection from other lawsuits? Basically you pay them and now you have protection from other similar companies trying to sue you. Sounds like classic protection racket that the mob is known for.

Tax farming did for royalty in France. I wonder if patent farming can do anything similar for society.

Patents are just the civil law equivalent of thought crimes.

They are a crime against humanity.

Well in the end it is the consumers who pay for this nonsense.

A startup in PMC space that reverse trolls the patent troll using the same strategy a week later? Would YC fund such a venture? lol

Chaotic Neutral.

I wish there was a good “how to” guide for patent trolling.

The irony is delicious.

if "patent trolls" would only go against monopolies, I would be fine with it...

you fail to realise that you are the one paying for it in the end - blindly hating innovative companies who make amazing products just because they make too much money for your liking is quite immature

If they are so innovative, why do they need to use somebody else's patent? I think that the monopolies are the immature ones if they complain about the price of patents owned by others...

I doubt they are using the money any more altruistically than Apple would.

At least they were smarter then the monopolies...


I hope these kind of lawsuits put an end this terrible patent system

And I hope the software copywriting goes on the same way

what's your suggestion? total elimination? how does that help people? changes to correct issues? what changes?

Apple getting beaten at its own game is kind of fun to witness TBH.

This is a very sensationalized, editorialized opinion-piece article. I would like to see something more objective, and substantive.

> So fast-forward a few years to 1981. Mr. Harvey sat down with an electrical engineer whose name was Jim Cuddihy. And together, Mr. Harvey and Mr. Cuddihy put together ground-breaking inventions in communications technology that were ahead of their time.

It sounds like they made something novel and interesting!

> PMC’s business “is to license out the technology of Mr. Harvey and Mr. Cuddihy so that companies that want to use that technology with permission can do so,” Subramanian explained. “The company has over 20 licensees, and they've earned millions and millions of dollars from companies who have paid for the right to use PMC's technology."

> To the extent that Harvey and Cuddihy ever had an idea for an actual product, it seems to have been a kind of computerized graphical overlay on top of a TV screen. At some point in the early 1990s, PMC demonstrated a prototype to some potential investors in New York City. The prototype system consisted of a VCR and a computer that were hooked up to another TV screen, which combined the video streams in some way. It wasn’t connected to the internet.

But they were given the patent for it right? And they clearly had some kind of a working prototype.

> Whatever this contraption was, it was likely pathetically out of date when it was shown off.

Oh so their "contraption" was pathetically out of date..

> PMC never made any for sale. And as the CEO admitted, they didn’t even spend on R&D. Instead, they embraced the fantasy language of the patent troll—one in which real companies, like Sony and Arris and other licensees, “took licenses in our inventions because they were using those inventions,” in the words of PMC’s general counsel, Thomas Scott.

REAL COMPANIES, like Sony and Arris and other licensees.

This is the crux of the issue right here. Basically, they developed the technology but were never able to productize it themselves. So they sold the tech to a bunch of other companies. And then later they discovered that the tech was being used by many more companies, in many more products.

This doesn't sound like a typical patent-troll case to me. Apple can afford to pay 300 mil for some tech that they didn't invent. God knows they've stolen way more than that.

All the language you're citing is how the plaintiff's lawyer describes the business. The other "licensees" are companies against whom they won lawsuits or who settled with them.

If they win this one, in the next lawsuit, they'll be able to describe Apple as one of their licensees, paying them hundreds of millions of dollars.

PMC is "licensing" technology the way the mob is providing fire protection.

I’ll give a contrary view point to most “patent trolls”.

I’m an inventor (100+ Issued patents), I develop POCs and concepts well beyond my ability to productionize. That’s not to say I couldnt create a product, just that I don’t have the resources. However, I do have the resources to develop novel techniques. Does that mean I didn’t invent the process- no, I did invent a new process. I just didn’t build them into a product.

You know what?

Apple is also inventing things and has a plethora of patents. Further, I 100% guarantee they did a patent search and knew of this patent prior to releasing their product(s).

While I don’t think patent trolling is necessarily fair, I don’t think saying “poor old Apple” for having to pay for someone else’s invention is fair either.

Do I think patent law needs reform? Yes. Right after copyright, which can be extended decades/a century after publication. That being said, this is the game. Play by the rules while you’re in it.

> I 100% guarantee they did a patent search and knew of this patent prior to releasing their product

No, you don't. You guess that and it's good for your business if you assume that companies do the search and that searching is feasible.

You dont have to publish them, keep them secret !! go sell your work as a secret if your work is so important, why do you have to publish it and then litigate anyone else who comes up with a similar techniques.

> You dont have to publish them, keep them secret !! go sell your work as a secret if your work is so important, why do you have to publish it and then litigate anyone else who comes up with a similar techniques.

Because if you simply keep it secret then the people who patented it after they independently came up with it can sue YOU!

The lesser evil is to put it into the public domain; then no one can patent it and no one can sue you either.

There’s a lot of hate in this thread, but this is the gist.

When you use a concept you have to patent it today. It’s unfortunate, but it’s reality. You can ignore patents out there, and later they will sue you (if your successful). And take a slice of your revenue.

If you have a lot of patents (like the big players). You then cross license and you’re good.

Do I think patent law needs reform, absolutely. It’s insane. Do I think you have to play the game - yes or you’re equally insane.

So why not do that? You're just creating minefields for people actually improving things. You won't get sued for having a shower thought and not doing anything with it.

Are you actually inventing things or just filing a bunch of patents?

I guess you can decide for yourself: https://patents.google.com/?inventor=Austin+Walters

I can't judge a lot of them, but a few from familiar territory are basically spam - shower thoughts turned into long technical descriptions. For example https://patents.google.com/patent/US20200137020A1/en is a joke which should've never been granted.

I had a look at the link. I do not really understand what it does (I work in IT, many years as a sysadmin) but it suspiciously looks like my code on a day I thought I had a revolutionary idea.

Then a few weeks later I have to look at it again and try to rediscover that revolutionary idea while the family is waiting for the lights to work again.

> I do not really understand what it does

It's basically: query the database for the list of nodes, then tell the LB which of those nodes you want to send traffic to. Something you come up with in 5min if you ever need it.

Well, yes, that I more or less understood - but why? The LB does this already, it is its role to know what to send where under which conditions.

Debugging I guess? If you have more logic in your LB/routing, you may want to process all of it as usual, but skip the random selection part and talk to a specific server for a single request. Or it could be used for pull-style monitoring over the same LB as traffic (GET /stats/i-0001234). Or some weird cluster selection... like HP uses numbers in the domain, for example www8.hp.com

A lot look like typical patent spam along the lines of "like X but in the cloud" or "like X but with AI"

"Automatically scaling neural networks based on load" [0] is one such example. Load balancing and scaling is nothing new. Doing it when there's a neural network as the application involved doesn't seem novel. Every flavor of software application shouldn't warrant its own patent for scaling out the computational resources involved, at least not when the supposedly novel method is so basic, but dressed up in neural network jargon. It doesn't even do that in all places. From the patent: "Allocate Processors -> receive load information from the processors -> adjust the number of processors based on the load information."

This is exactly the sort of patent I would expect a patent troll to buy up and then go after anyone (as long as they have money) that does any sort of automatic load balancing or resource scaling. Awful.

Then this one [1] is, quite literally, authenticating a user... but at an ATM machine. Ridiculous.

They aren't all this bad, but a lot of them are. However I'll note one that seems to have a least a little merit: [2] Using IR or temperature changes in keypads to obfuscate ATM pin input. (stealing PINs via thermal imagine is aparantly a real thing)

[0] https://patents.google.com/patent/US10614360B2/en?inventor=A...

[1] https://patents.google.com/patent/US20200012778A1/en?invento...

[2] https://patents.google.com/patent/US20200202015A1/en?invento...

I think the legal terms may be throwing a bit of a loop. But what I can say is this is now deployed in several contexts by multiple companies (which weren’t when we submitted).

Is it “spam”, I guess you can call it what ever you want. But you’re missing the nuanced problem.

Say as a company A you never submit a patent. Companies B, C, D, E, etc... All patent a portion of your applications before they are deployed or even after their deployed (but the patent is public).

They can then sue you. Each company for the aspects you violated.

Look at Wells Fargo via usaa


Imagine that ten fold. You need (if your a decent target), patents you can cross license. Do I think it’s good? No I don’t. Can I reasonably argue you need to patent as a corporation - yes. I also support patent and copyright reform, but I can still understand the need to protect ourselves in the meantime.

Yes, I understand that companies no longer have much choice but to amass an arsenal of patents like this to deter suits being brought against them.

The issue I took up in my comment was that you seemed to be defending this process to some extent, so I appreciate you clarifying your point of view to mean you were only defending the necessity of companies to engage in this sort of stockpiling of patents. It's not, from a less subjective viewpoint, rational: It is a net drain on the economy and innovation. However, when you find yourself in a crazy situation that you can't significantly alter, the rational response is often something that is itself irrational.

I often think of war as the prime example of this... It's insane that the US dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan. Heck, it's insane that such weapons were developed to begin with. And year the entire broader context was insane. Fighting a more conventional war against Japan would have been even more crazy, costing more lives and prolonging the war even longer. It's an appropriate metaphor to call the crazy patent situation "patent wars". (It's also part of why I like things like the study of optimal strategies in iterated prisoner dilemmas... it gives a framework for how to think about rational decision making under irrational conditions.)

> Using IR or temperature changes in keypads to obfuscate ATM pin input.

A friend of mine described to me this exact idea over four years ago — well before the linked patent was issued. Does he have grounds to overturn that patent!?

It wouldn't count as prior art for the purpose of invalidating the patent unless his idea was in some way identifiable during a reasonable search for prior art. From a legal perspective, prior art is usually interpreted as the available information about the thing being patented. If your friend told you about it over drinks at a bar, that's not prior art. For that matter, trade secrets for even very old things aren't prior art either because the information is not available. If your friend wrote a blog post that hit the mainstream media, or at least the front page of HN, it gets to be a bit of a grey area.

Wow. So anyone with a half baked idea can make and own a patent??

Worse: anyone whose employer thinks they have an idea may own a patent. There's an application on my name that I refused to sign and provided prior art instead. But corps gonna corp.

Pretty much. It's appalling.

Every software company in the world violates dozens to thousands of patents. If we all properly “played by the rules,” we’d be paralyzed by patents. No software could exist without a patent licensing team (internal or external), the overheads of which would make many ventures not worthwhile to pursue. Often you’d need to pay twice or more for the same concept, because most patents are vague and overlap with others. The combined patent licensing fees & terms would be crippling.

Software businesses (and others) currently exist at the mercy of patent-rights holders. As soon as they grow fat enough, the ROI on suing them makes it worthwhile. The case of PMC vs YouTube is a representative example.

The US patent system, as it is now, does not make the world a better place. It stifles innovation, where it should be fostering it.

Copyright, on the other hand, is much harder to violate. A software company can do business with much less fear of unknowingly breaching copyright. The copyright discussion is sufficiently different and unrelated to the patent discussion that raising it as an argument seems a little whataboutery.

Fully agree. It's a total mess and it needs a major reform.

It's also a by-design unfair system only for the rich - as those with ideas (especially in 3rd world countries) don't have the resources to file for patents. It really makes my blood boil.

How can you invent so many things?

The "invention" is DRM. You think Apple read this patent and said "a-ha, that's how you do it?"

Human slavery was also the game until 150 years ago.

Patents and copyright are immoral, or the word immoral has no meaning.

Don’t play immoral games. Think from first principles.

To start, human slavery was certainly not abolished 150 years ago...[0]

[0]: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_the_21st_century

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