IPR Wars - will Patent Trolls cost the US its poll position?

The current US dominance of the software and content industries is critically dependent on  acceptance, however reluctant, of its global enforcement of domestic Patent and Copyright Laws – despite their known weaknesses and abuse. Three years ago I blogged on the possible effects of recession and changes in the economic balance of power on that acceptance. This morning I read the BBC cover of the attempts by a Patent Troll to tax the Apps market and the previously unpublicised responses of Apple and Google to this threat to their future revenues.

This opens a can of worms. The worms are linked to a variety of minefields.  

One of my Grandfathers was a senior patent officer. When he retired he was presented with a folder of the fifty or so patents for long-life light bulbs that he had adjudicated which had not been brought to market during the life of the patent. They had been filed, or subsequently bought, by those who wished to ensure they did not go into production. I remember him pointing out six which were finally launched in the 1960s, as “new” breakthroughs” – after the patents had lapsed.  

I subsequently spent five years as a corporate planner for the Wellcome Foundation. I came to understand how an unholy combination of patent law, safety testing and reaction reporting regimes removed reward to those who brought innovation to any but the richest of health markets and condemned large numbers of small mammals to unnecessary slaughter. 

Later, when I was an external assessor for what was then one of the UK’s main sources of capital for high-tech companies, I had to find a way of securing effective IPR protection for a business whose highly innovative services used techniques for which the patents had been adjudicated in the 1930s by my Grandfather, but required technology that was not sufficiently reliable until the 1980s.

I am still not sure what the questions are, but suspect the “answers” are to do with:

  • funding the search for “prior knowledge” to check that an innovation is genuine
  • restricting protection to those genuinely seeking to bring their innovations to market
  • timing protection for “regulated” products from when they are “allowed” to start selling
  • aligning the protection lives and regimes of patent, copyright  and “author’s rights

I also believe the “answers” will not be found until the damage to the US economy, let alone that of the UK and EU, has become so great that major corporations will decide it is more sensible to work together for reform than seek to outbid each other for existing IPR (albeit not just to be in a better position to negotatiate swap arrangements.). 

The reform of IPR is one of the areas that Dr Edward Phelps, (who takes over from me at the end of September as Secretary General of EURIM, the Information Society) wishes to address. It may be that the time is right and he will succeed where I failed. I have, however, suggested he put it well down his list of priorities, at least until players like Apple, Google, HP, IBM, News International, Reed Elsevier and Sony have decided that the current regime is unsustainable and they are ready to back global co-operation on reform.     

The Patent Trolls may have helped bring that day forward.