I will admit it. I am an Apple junkie. Our house is home to two Macs, two iPhones, an iPad, and an iPod Touch (not to mention a few old devices gathering dust in a bin). But I am also a bit torn on the patent battles that continue to rage between smartphone companies. The iPhone, for example, completely revolutionized the mobile phone industry and all of the other device manufacturers "emulated" it. If you don't believe me, check out this graphic. But the headlines over lawsuits, injunctions, and other forms of legal maneuvering are becoming daily reading. Now it's about to get worse. Apple was granted a number of patents this week that will only make the patent battles more absurd. In particular, the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent to Apple relating to the iPhone's graphical user interface for displaying electronic lists and documents, which, in particular, according to Patently Apple "covers UI modules covering blogging, email, telephone, camera, video player, calendar, browser, widgets, search, notes, maps and more importantly, a multi-touch interface." If you thought the battles over software patents so far were ridiculous (and many serious people do), these new patents should bring it to a new level and keep patent lawyers salivating.
With all of the talk in the news recently about the increasing hostile patent wars between tech companies (see the ongoing Apple v. Motorola saga that was thrown out of court in a big way today), it would seem natural that startups would be getting in on that trend early to protect their ideas. However, an interesting report that came out this week seems to indicate that that is not necessarily the case.
"Despite the overall decline in application activity, those companies that have chosen to pursue patents have done so more aggressively than ever. This is indicative of the increasing dichotomy in the marketplace, in which some thought leaders are actively speaking out against certain types of patents while patent portfolios are being bought and sold for lucrative amounts."
That sounds right to me. Many of my startup clients will about the feasibility of obtaining a patent early on. There is a common perception that they need to formally protect their idea to maintain a competitive advantage. That still may be true in some industries (see, e.g., biotech and semiconductors), but for many entrepreneurs starting companies in the ecommerce and web space, the time and expense of obtaining and protecting a patent is just not worth it.