We live in a civil society governed by laws—laws designed to protect the innocent from being preyed upon by the wicked.
For example, what if a guy knowingly accused me of something he knew I didnt do? Say, that I had stolen something. And say this guy used this false accusation to blackmail me into paying him large sums of money. This person would be guilty of violating several laws, both misdemeanors and felonies.
At first I might have some trouble fighting this person. I would need some proof that his accusations were false—testimony from representatives of a trusted institution, such as police officers or a district attorney, stating that I wasnt the thief. Once this institution basically said the claims that I was a thief were false, I would be safe from blackmail and ready to bring charges against my accuser.
But imagine that I lived in a bizarro world where it wouldnt be enough for this respected institution to state that evidence clearly showed that I wasnt a thief and that this statement wouldnt be "official" until years of bureaucratic red tape had been cleared.
On top of that, even though every group involved with this case would know that my accusers claims were false, the very court systems designed to protect me would instead order me to pay my blackmailer or face severe consequences.
The sad thing is, this topsy-turvy world actually does exist. Its called the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The scenario Ive described is essentially the recent saga of Research In Motion vs. NTP.
Think about it: RIM is accused of violating NTPs patents—essentially being a thief of NTPs intellectual property. RIM looks at the claims and says the patents arent valid and that it wont reward NTP for hoodwinking the USPTO. After RIM challenges the patent, the USPTO eventually agrees with RIM, releasing several statements saying the NTP patents arent valid.
Now, Im driven by logic, and I think logic should drive most decisions, especially when it comes to law. Most logical people would agree that if the USPTO says a patent isnt valid, the courts should throw out cases based on that decision—sort of like when a person is being charged for murder but is released when the real killer is found sitting on a pile of evidence.
However, the way our patent system is designed and the way that courts have been instructed to deal with patent cases dont seem to have much to do with logic. Despite the fact that the USPTO was well on the way to invalidating the NTP patents, the courts werent going to let RIM off the hook until every single "i" had been dotted and every single "t" had been crossed.
This, of course, led to the absurd situation where a vital communication system was on the verge of being shut down because the company that ran it was being accused of violating a patent that the USPTO said was invalid.
We were saved from a BlackBerry blackout only when RIM finally paid NTP hundreds of millions of dollars, essentially rewarding NTP for getting a bad patent through the system and using that patent to extort money from companies that actually innovate and make products.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Exhibit A in the case against software patents in the United States. Among all the blatantly obvious patents that have shown how bad the U.S. patent system is, nothing is as bad as this case.
What really galls me is that some people blamed RIM for the whole thing, saying it should have just settled earlier. I wish the company hadnt settled at all. Like they say, dont pay off crooks, dont make deals with terrorists and dont give in to bad patents. If BlackBerrys everywhere had gone dark, we might have finally gotten some actual patent reform.
This has got to stop. We can no longer have a patent system that essentially works like a protection racket. (Nice product you got there—it would be a shame if something happened to it.) Use the RIM situation to remind lawmakers of how this debacle was caused by the current patent system. And maybe, finally, software and product innovation can return to the real world.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.