As the Patent Wars have been getting ever louder and ever more strange, as companies buy patents from each other to sue some other company, it seems that the United Nations has had enough and has stepped in to the smartphone makers to calm them down. The UN? Negotiating on patents? God help us all…
Unless you’ve been away from the planet for a concerted period of time (in which case – welcome back! Please don’t mind that the IQ of the planet has been lowered by 10 points since you were last here, it’s not our fault…), it will have been hard to miss that there is a Patent War going on.
Companies use patents to effectively control the methods and mean by which they create a product. That’s a reasonable idea, because you don’t want another company stepping in to compete by doing the exact same thing you do in the exact same way – that’s just mean, cruel and spiteful. Patents also served once upon a time as security, smaller inventors with patents had added value on their product. It gave them an edge against big businesses trying to muscle in on their territory, and if they wanted a piece of what you had – they had to pay for it.
Patents were a good thing. But they are no longer the sensible, secure items they once were. Most of them aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.
There are good reasons why – taking out the fact companies are buying and trading patents to get one over their competition, which is spiteful and mean spirited as well as grossly corrupt, Patent Offices are now a business rather than a public service. They have become as profit-driven as the companies they serve, and indeed, on my old blog I talked at length about the United States Patents and Trademarks Office, and how evidence had been coming to light they were not cross-referencing many applications, which was leading to patent conflicts and unnecessary lawsuits. I don’t know if much has changed, but that there are clearly more patents being required as the technology world rushes onward, at best human error comes into play and at the very worst end, they may simply just see it as money for paper. Expensive paper that holds as much weight in a courtroom as a grain of sand in a vacuum.
But I digress. Patents are big business now. You got it, they want it. Want to get one over a rival? Find an earlier patent application, or ally with those who have patents and “borrow” them for a certain period of time. All the while, it is the consumers who are suffering – items can be banned from sale, services paid for terminated without warning or recourse with no means of obtaining a refund, companies bled dry under the weight of fines and obscene, one-sided licencing arrangements. As many argue – the only winners here are the patent offices, who already have the money and are seemingly above reproach, and the lawyers who take these cases on and charge incredible fees for it.
And now the United Nations is stepping into the smartphone market, which has seen some pretty hefty lawsuits of late, to try and cool things off.
You see, patents are supposed to apply to fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, also known as FRAND terms. This is supposed to mean that companies cannot discriminate or bar people from using patents which are a standard, but can request a fee for the usage of their patent should they see fit. Of course, the real issue with patents is no-one can agree as to what constitutes FRAND terms – everyone has their own definition on what is fair and reasonable, and if you can’t agree on those two points the third one is jettisoned out of the nearest airlock into the void of space. Without agreement, consensus or guidelines as to how to proceed, there has in the last few years been anarchy in the patent world. Microsoft can be banned from selling the X-Box 360 in Germany, because they can’t agree terms with Motorola Google over video codecs. The iPhone in various countries is barred from sale, violating patents from aforementioned Motorola Google and Samsung. This is a growing trend of rulings that the UN is hoping it can step in and mediate.
Except the UN isn’t exactly in a good position for this.
The UN has itself serious issues – each member of the organisation has different goals and priorities and none of them will take kindly to seeing their patents offices scrutinised and examined to see if they can be herded into something more efficient – it’s big business, and as many of them shepherd money back into their treasuries, a golden goose they don’t want people to look too closely at. Then there will be the question of whether you can change laws – China will LOVE that one, not – to combat the issue, and lay down examples and paths and caps on licencing arrangements. And if one big country doesn’t like it – then it all goes pear shaped and into the bin, as we saw with limitations on North Korea.
The point here is, the UN has no teeth. It is entirely at the whim of its members, many of which may be happy with the amount of money flowing about over this. Hell, it’s taxable and we need tax revenue, right? If they feel that this isn’t in their interests, the simple truth is – they’re not likely to apply any recommendations. What will the UN do about it? Nothing, it seems. It can’t. It doesn’t have the assertive power or political freedom to be above them.
And that’s not taking into consideration these talks will begin on October 10th 2012. Which is months away, when so much damage in business and trust is being done already.
The world of patents used to be about freedom, exchange and innovation. To reward the inventive, and give companies the chance to arrange terms with them in exchange for their goods and services. Now it’s about domination, self-survival and crippling your competition. It has become corporate, stifled and designed to be a mess of complications that a versed litigator can navigate through to bomb his employers rivals before they can do the same.
It’s becoming apparent, between the banks, the corporate entities and the lawyers, that there is no sanctity in the upper regions of society. They simply don’t care. And considering so many politicians from multiple countries hail from these upper regions, asking them to look out for the best interests of smaller companies and consumers is hilariously naive at best. There’s still too much self-interest for that to be a realistic option. And even if they can agree on terms that would benefit companies and consumers – the likelihood its recommendations will be adopted internationally is minuscule. It only takes one country to not apply it for all the cases to simply move there, and then it’s the road back to what we have now.
Things need to change – I don’t think anyone would disagree with me there. But it won’t change because of the UN. It doesn’t have the power to do that.
And that really is patently ridiculous.