About five years ago the BBC carried a news story about a chap in Australia who had taken advantage of a new law which meant that patent applications only needed to innovation rather than invention. He registered a patent application for something known as a ‘circular transportation facilitation device’ or the wheel to you and me. Now, OK, that was done by an IP lawyer trying to prove a point, and the then Commissioner of Patents in Australia, Vivienne Thom, was quick to point out that all applicants have to declare they invented the thing, and so the patent in question would be invalidated as a result of this not being actually true.
There is no denying the validity of Intel’s many patents, but I would question the way they are being used as a big stick with which to beat off the smaller competition. Reports have started to circulate in Taiwan that suggest the CPU giant is putting the screws on Via Technologies to make a rapid exit from the CPU market in exchange for not stopping it manufacturing PC chipsets using Intel patented technology. According to The Inquirer the source is right there at Via but wants, perhaps wisely, to remain anonymous. You wouldn’t think that Via could be anything more than a very small fly in the Intel ointment, being primarily a chipset manufacturer after all. But Intel knows that it is very slowly losing market share to Via when it comes to the handheld, budget notebook and even media server sectors where the low cost, low heat and low power consumption of the VIA CPUs are attracting ever more attention.
Every aspect of Intel’s patented technology has been analyzed with a fine toothcomb, and for some years now the legal pressure has been mounting against Via. Indeed, many analysts suggest that Via is losing valuable market share in the chipset business as a direct result of this ongoing 10 year battle. Yet Intel granted Via a license to use that disputed technology back in 2003, a license that is due to expire in April 2007. Which is why Intel is now revisiting the whole patents affair in a tit-for-tat effort to shovel Via out of its own core marketplace by generously allowing it to stay alive in its own.
Sure, it has every legal right to do this, and the ownership of the patents is not disputed. But it does sadden me when every aspect of a technology can get covered in such minute detail that as well as protecting one’s own business interests the patent system can stifle innovation.
In fact, pretty much the whole direction the patent system has traveled saddens me. There’s the hatred I feel for patent squatters, buying up companies just for the patents they own so this can then be used to extract large payments from other companies it can chase through the courts if the ‘you sank my patent’ gamble succeeds. And often it does, out of court. Or how about the stupidity of the US system that allows for software patents? Thankfully the guidelines for granting a UK patent exclude ‘the presentation of information, or a computer program’ which is why the really silly stuff is all happening stateside at the moment.
How silly, well why not take a look at the really rather superb No Software Patents site for some examples which are about as sensible as a chocolate coffee pot. How about a patent covering the ‘rights for the transfer of e-mails with attachments’ or maybe even the ‘download of a device driver from the Internet’ – both of which have been granted.
It all makes reinventing the wheel seem positively sensible after all.