Another broad and obvious patent rears its ugly head, with every major new smart phone, including Apple's iPhone, facing lawsuits from the patent holding company.
In recent months there has been a lot of talk about patent reform. And on top of that last year saw a major Supreme Court decision that clearly should make it much harder to get and hold patents based on ideas that were clearly obvious to practitioners in the given technology field.
But so far it looks as if all this talk about reform and improvements in the patent system has been just that, talk.
That's because when it comes to stupid, damaging and overly-broad patents getting awarded by the U.S. Patent Office, recent evidence shows that it is still business as usual.
And in the last couple of weeks the Patent Office has outdone itself by granting a whopper of an overly broad and obvious patent. In terms of potential damage to technology markets, this one looks nearly as bad as the mid-1990's British Telecom patent claim to hyper-linking.
The company awarded this patent is called Minerva Industries. They are a company that appears to not make anything other than patent lawsuits (the type of company that is often described using a term referring to a mythical monster that lives under bridges) and that holds patents on everything from cell phones to car seat belts.
But cell phones are the key area in the recent patent that Minerva received. And their patent claim is a doozey.
The patent that the U.S. Patent Office awarded to Minerva is for a cell phone that connects to the Internet wirelessly, has a camera and microphone, uses memory cards, can play and manage multimedia files, and basically does everything else that smartphones have been doing for over ten years.
So basically it is the king of overly broad patents and essentially applies to every cell phone in existence today. Minerva clearly thought so, as within minutes of getting the patent they filed lawsuits against pretty much every major player in the smart phone market, including Apple, RIM, Nokia, Sprint, AT&T, and anyone else they could think of.
When you look at the potential damage that could be caused by this patent, it boggles the mind. It could easily dwarf the NTP patent that nearly shut down RIM's Blackberry system.
But strangely, no one has paid much attention to this patent so far. Maybe it's because we've all become so used to stupid patents getting awarded.
Maybe it's because it seems so obvious that this patent will get thrown out. From a prior art standpoint it sure looks like it should. It only took me minutes to find articles from 1996 and earlier that discussed smart phones that did everything that the Minerva patent (which was filed in 2000) claims. Heck, I tested and used smart phones that did most of these things before 2000.
It's bad enough when there is prior art based on public discussions and white papers. In this case we have prior art of actual products.
But just because a patent seems obvious and likely to be thrown out doesn't mean that will happen. Everyone, including the Patent Office, said that the NTP patent should be thrown out but that didn't stop RIM from having to pay out over $600 million just to stay in business.
And in the case of this patent, Apple sent examples of prior art to the examiner and yet the patent examiner still granted it.
So instead of enjoying the fruits of technical innovation and looking forward to new and exciting products, all of us have to once again sit and watch valuable resources and effort wasted to fight against a patent that should have never been granted.