Thursday

Thursday 6/2/2003Another submarine surfaces on the Web. Submarine patents are those that the owners keep quiet about, letting other companies build enterprises using technologies covered by the patents.

Thursday 6/2/2003
Another submarine surfaces on the Web. Submarine patents are those that the owners keep quiet about, letting other companies build enterprises using technologies covered by the patents. Only when things have been going for a while and there's actual money there does the submarine surface and point its guns at the surprised businessmen. This time, it's streaming video and audio: a company called Acacia claims to have these basic technologies covered and the lawyers are out there asking for their royalties. Even this one tiny aspect of patent law stinks. It is not possible nor plausible for a small company building a new business to do a comprehensive patent search, as many of these software patents are so broad you'd never write another line of code in your life were you to take them seriously. Likewise, it is inimical for companies with such intellectual property to keep it quiet in the hope of trapping the unwary, or for them to seek to exact money from those companies least well able to defend themselves. Not that I'm saying Acacia has done any of the above, but it does happen and the way the patent law works encourages this. It would be far fairer to use the same idea as applies to trademarks: a company that owns the IP has to actively protect it in all circumstances. If you let anyone use your IP for any length of time, it is deemed that you have no interest in maintaining it and it lapses. This leads to some sad cases -- such as when a farmer was forced to remove a picture of Snoopy from the roof of his barn -- but does at least lead to a level playing field and many fewer surprises.

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