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Sunday, June 09, 2013

Patently ridiculous. Why it's time to wind them back

Sunday column

Hands up if you like the idea of running chocolate through a 3D printer.

Hands up if you wish you had “invented” it?

That’s what four US inventors claim to have done. They say they also invented the (fairly obvious) related concept of keeping the chocolate at a constant temperature as it moves through the equipment. They’ve applied for a patent. If they get it they’ll make money every time someone builds a 3D printer that can make shapes out of chocolate. They thought of it first.

It raises an alarming prospect, that of 3D printing patents without end. One for each different material that can be melted and squeezed through a printing head before becoming solid - a different patent for for each different person who “invented” the idea.

Why do I think the idea is alarming? It’ll do the exact opposite of what the patent system is meant to do. It is meant to encourage innovation. But having to send off a cheque here, a cheque there to an unknown number of people who can claim to have “invented” a fairly obvious idea means some of the people who actually build things won’t bother.

You don’t need to have built something, or even know how to build something, to get a patent.

US patent 6025810 is a case in point. It is a method for transmitting information faster than the speed of light, using the fifth dimension.

All you need is to be able to claim that you thought of the idea first, and to describe it in complex language.

Jim Logan has a patent for a “system for disseminating media content representing episodes in a serialized sequence”. He is using it to demand money from podcasters. He says he invented the podcast. But he doesn’t podcast and he didn’t help develop podcasting software. His contribution was to distribute audio programs on cassette tapes in the mid-1990s and patent the idea. I distributed them while I was at high school in the mid-1970s, but I never thought of applying for a patent. Jim has already got a court to order Apple to pay him $8 million for (inadvertently) infringing his patent on the idea of a playlist...

Jim is a patent troll. He doesn’t like the term, and you can hear him quibble with it in the latest edition of the US National Public Radio podcast Planet Money. A troll is someone who neither makes the product nor provides the service but who makes money threatening legal action against people who do.

MPHJ Technology Investments and an array of shell companies has been sending out thousands of letters to small businesses across the US demanding they pay $1000 per worker because they use scanners to email documents. Almost every business uses scanners to email documents. Many have paid up.

President Obama this week published a report defining trolls as firms that “focus on aggressive litigation using such tactics as threatening to sue thousands of companies at once without specific evidence of infringement against any of them, creating shell companies that make it difficult for defendants to know who is suing them, and asserting that their patents cover inventions not imagined at the time they were granted.”

It says lawsuits by trolls have tripled in the past two years, accounting for two thirds of of all infringement suits. Obama went on the offensive, asking Congress to limit lawsuits to people who make rather than people who use technology. He also wants courts to award “loser pays” judgements where the trolls have to pay their intended victims for wasting their money and their time.

But I am not sure it is enough. I am not sure we shouldn’t abolish patents altogether. It’d do little to slow innovation in the information technology industry, almost certainly quickening it. The authors of a Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis study The Case Against Patents argue that James Watt’s patents on the steam engine held back Britain's industrial progress for decades.

They say during the thirty years of Watt’s patents they the UK added just 750 horsepower of steam engines per year. In the thirty years after they expired it added more than 4000 per year. And the engines became much more efficient. Watt had used his patents to block the development of the high-pressure steam engine.

Rather than hacking away at patents Australia has been extending them. In 1994 at the request of the World Trade Organisation Australia retrospectively extended the life of existing patents from 16 to 20 years. An Industry Commission study found the decision could have cost the economy $2 billion.

The health minister has before her a report recommending winding back the practice of extending drug patents. It’d be a start.

In today's Canberra Times and Sun Herald

When Patents Hit the Podcast: Planet Money May 31 2013

22 minutes, play or RIGHT CLICK to download mp3

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. Shock. Republicans (briefly) speak the truth about copyright

. Why not try prizes instead?