The Economist Misses the Point on RIM

by on December 18, 2005 · 4 comments

Whoever wrote this disappointing article in The Economist doesn’t seem to have done his homework:

Distressed BlackBerry users argue that too many of the world’s workers rely on the device for the service to be shut down. But many of their jobs depend on the principle at stake in this case–that the courts should protect intellectual property because it rewards inventors by conferring a real title to an intangible asset. Business requires confidence that intellectual property will be respected and infringers brought to justice, regardless of whether the litigant is using the patent or not. Only with that security will firms patent and license their inventions, thus allowing others to use their ideas.

This argument rings incredibly hollow in light of the actual facts of this case. It’s undisputed that RIM invented its system independently of NTP, and NTP never brought it’s “inventions” to market in any significant way. In light of those facts, the last sentence gets the situation precisely backwards: the patent system is serving as an obstacle to the widespread use of the “invention” in question. In this case, at least, innovation would have been served just fine without any patent system at all.

Nowhere does the article mention what the patents actually cover, and there’s certainly no attempt to defend the patents on their merits. Yet considering such details is vital to understanding what’s at stake in this case. NTP’s patents don’t cover a genuine invention so much as an obvious combination of well-known previous inventions, namely email and wireless technology. It was all but inevitable that others would think of the same combination in short order. Indeed, it’s likely plenty of geeks had already thought about the concept but considered it too obvious to apply for a patent on it.

I think it’s hard for anyone who’s looked at the details to argue with a straight face that siding with patent trolls like NTP is vital to the health of the IT industry. Quite the opposite: spurious patents have become a major drag on high-tech industry, with companies like NTP leeching off the wealth created by genuine innovators like RIM.

The Economist thinks that the principle at stake in the RIM-NTP battle is whether patents should be protected, but that’s silly. Hardly anyone is advocating that the patent system be repealed in its entirety. Rather, NTP critics are seeking reforms that will ensure that only genuine inventions–those that are genuinely useful, novel, and nonobvious–receive legal protection. Some want the obviousness requirement tightened up. Others (such as me) argue that certain classes of patents, such as those for software and business methods, never meet these standards and so should be excluded from patentability. In any event, there’s not much dispute that patents for legitimate inventions should be upheld, and that’s certainly not the principle at stake in this case.

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