Patent wars promote innovation

High-profile disputes emphasise the importance of IT companies developing novel solutions

Patent disputes between major technology companies now seem to be an everyday occurrence. Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, HTC, Apple, Google, Research In Motion (BlackBerry), Samsung and others are all involved in one or more patent lawsuits.

These companies are also purchasing large numbers of patents to add to their patent ’war chests’, but are these escalating patent wars bad for innovation?

A patent is infringed if you use the invention it protects. If you don’t do that, the patent should not be infringed.

This suggests that a large number of patents should encourage rather than stifle innovation. It is only by coming up with products and features that avoid existing patents – rather than copying ideas that may be protected by patents – that disputes can be avoided.

Of course, there are some patents that cannot be avoided, such as so-called ’essential’ patents that are needed, for example, to conform to relevant mobile phone standards. However, standards-setting bodies allow for this by making it a requirement that any essential patents will be licensed on fair and reasonable terms.

The current patent wars could not be taking place if there had been no innovation resulting in patents, and would not be taking place if the major technology companies did not value the innovations that patents protect.

So if large technology companies value innovations and the patents that protect them, should that not encourage rather than discourage innovation?

Something else that should not be overlooked is that it can be highly beneficial for technology start-ups, for example, to hold patents of their own. Such patents can be used for defensive purposes in the event of a patent dispute, as well as to prevent others from using the innovation that the patent protects.

However, patents are only available for new inventions, so the only way to obtain patents yourself (other than by purchasing them) is to innovate. Therefore a further incentive to innovate is the prospect that innovation will lead to patents of one’s own.
So, are the current patent wars bad for innovation? No. Not innovating and simply doing what has been done before is more, not less, likely to lead to patent issues. Innovating and developing new products is the way to avoid these issues.

If you innovate you can obtain your own patents and these can then be used for both defensive and offensive purposes.

Moreover, the current high-technology patent wars suggest that innovation and the patents that go with it are critical in today’s high-technology business arena.

Large technology companies – and consequently investors in technology companies – see that, more than ever, the value of companies and their position relative to their competitors is determined by their ability to innovate, and by the patents they can generate and hold. This should encourage technology companies to innovate and acquire their own patents.