From Wikipedia's definition of patents:
A patent (pronounced /ˈpætənt/ or /ˈpeɪtənt/) is a set of exclusive rights granted by a state (national government) to an inventor or their assignee for a limited period of time in exchange for a public disclosure of an invention.
This week, Apple filed patent lawsuits against cellphone manufacturer HTC, claiming 20 U.S. patent violations. That was the talk of the town in the whole tech world. Here's what Steve Jobs had to say about it:
“We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We’ve decided to do something about it,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours.” (source: Apple.com)
As pointed out by various sources, some of the patent infringements which has pissed off Steve Jobs are really, how do I put it succinctly, eye brow raising? For example - look at this one (a snippet from engadget.com
Patent #7,657,849: Unlocking A Device By Performing Gestures On An Unlock Image This one's cute 'cause it's brand new -- seriously, it was just granted on February 2. It's almost exactly what it says on the tin: it covers unlocking a touchscreen device by moving an unlock image. It's broad enough for us to say that it covers virtually every unlock behavior we've seen on phones, not just the iPhone's slide-to-unlock implementation.
This makes me wonder, is there any specific criteria you need to file U.S. patents - especially software patents such as these? I mean, come on - how can you patent an idea? In the above patent, you are creating a patent that allows, mind you, ONLY YOU, to use any implementation, to unlock a screen using a gesture on a touchscreen. How does that work out for other manufacturers? Should they just leave out the "unlock your phone" feature on their "oh-so-smart" phones, just because another company has already patented that idea? That's just plain ludicrous!! Patents should be on how you implement an idea, but not on the idea itself.
Ideas are generally abstract. One person may later come up with a better and an even more efficient implementation of the same idea - should there be a patent or a law to discourage such innovations? Especially in a software world, its all about these abstract ideas. Most operating systems have the same set of ideas behind their UI implementation (the user clicks the minimize button, for example, and the window disappears), the only thing that differs is how each operating system is more efficient in incorporating that into the whole user experience.
Software patents are fine, as long it's used as a tool to issue counter patent lawsuits (as a defensive measure) against a company. But when someone tries to take an offensive stand by being the first to file a case against a competitor on such patents that is down right obvious (such as the example quoted above), it makes me wonder if the whole patent system is actually encouraging innovations.
"Apple has suffered irreparable injury for which there is no adequate remedy at law and will continue to suffer such irreparable injury unless the defendants' infringement" is enjoined by the court, Apple said in a complaint filed in the Delaware court. (source: informationweek.com)
I agree that Apple has its reasons to be annoyed. Many of the features in other smart phones (like the Google Android platform based devices) have been directly influenced by what Apple first introduced in its iPhone. Instead of creating a complete new UI design, they are imitating the ideas already present and successful, in their phones. But, can you file patents for every feature, fathomed by your common sense, that you have introduced in your product, and expect to kill the competition later by filing a dozen patent lawsuits, when they come up with similar ideas? Do ALL of the 20 patents mentioned require legitimate legal actions? Or is it just a waste of enormous time and money for the concerned parties and the court? Apple has been respected and loved for its innovations (remember the "Think Different" ads, Macs, iPod, iPhone etc etc?). But with Apple diligently taking steps like these to get rid of the competition, people will be forced to think differently - no one likes to see someone becoming over-competitive.
Disclaimer: I am not a master of U.S. patent laws, but as a consumer of tech gadgets, I have presented my views on the situation. (I still love Apple and Google :))