Litigation lunacy: Silicon Valley's lost its collective mind

The dreary details differ, but the same theme informs--we're good, they're bad, and dear judge: would you please kneecap these guys for us?

From time to time the technology industry buys into convenient fibs that it tells itself even when anyone with two feet planted firmly on planet Earth knows that it's a lot of malarkey.

The Supreme Court Screenshot by CNET
Remember when "counting eyeballs" was on everyone's lips? How about the revolutionary insight that "earnings no longer matter?" Those were a couple of beauts.

Now it's all about "protecting intellectual property rights" with corporate lawyers running wild filing patent lawsuits. Their PR teams are working around the clock firing off cheese-eating releases claiming how the angels are on their side of the docket. And the rest of us, the users, are left watching and waiting on the sidelines. Hard to see how any of this will further the cause of innovation, but that's not really the point, is it? For your consideration, a few of the more notable entries from the recent hit parade:

  • Apple is suing Motorola over a Qualcomm license.
  • Apple has gone to court seeking to ban Samsung's Galaxy Nexus smartphone in the U.S.
  • Apple sought to keep Samsung from selling its Galaxy Tablet in Australia and won a court injunction last October. One month later, an Australian appeals court overturned the ban.
  • Apple's got a patent complaint case going against HTC.
  • eBay is suing (PDF) over Google Wallet mobile payment system.
  • Eastman Kodak is suing Apple and HTC over digital imaging patents. Last gasp of a dying company? Kodak last month filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
  • Microsoft is suing Barnes & Noble for patent royalties it claims are owed for the Nook. Barnes & Noble treats this as a stick-up. Microsoft "uses these patents to demand that every manufacturer of an Android-based mobile device take a license from Microsoft and pay exorbitant licensing fees," the company said in a trade commission filing.
  • Microsoft's in a patent fight with Motorola and has already won an interim victory at the International Trade Commission.
  • Motorola Mobility got a court to temporarily force Apple to remove its products from German online store. (Apple subsequently won a temporary suspension of the order.) Motorola says it is ready to license the wireless patents in question in return for a paltry, ahem, 2.25 percent cut of Apple's revenues
  • Oracle is suing Google over Android and Java (PDF). What does Oracle have to do with the invention of those technologies? Nothing, but it acquired the relevant copyrights and patents when it bought Sun Microsystems in 2010.

Meanwhile, the rest of the tech world is waiting to see what happens after Google completes its Motorola acquisition and gets its hand on a veritable patent trove. The company recently wrote a letter to the IEEE where it tried to assuage concerns that it would be reasonable about royalties and injunctions, though some remain hard-pressed to think the offer believable. See Florian Mueller's excellent write-up here.

Where does it all stop? When does it all stop? It's hard to put trust in a system that extends legal protections to patent claims that are overly broad or entirely unoriginal. Inventors have complained for decades that the system is broken. Things are set up in such a way that a developer may only discover what a patent covers after a dispute goes to court. That rewards big companies that can afford to sue.

The dreary details differ, but the same theme informs--we're good, they're bad, and dear judge: would you please kneecap these guys for us? If that's a prescription for fostering innovation, Silicon Valley's heading for trouble.

 

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