Patents, the weaponizing of patents in particular, and the weaponizing of patents by Apple in particular is the latest in the the New York Times' curious iEconomy series. This, the 7th installment, is penned by Charles Duhigg and Steve Lohr, and once again, rather than explore the real problems with patent litigation, the Times instead chooses focus on Apple and its lawsuits against Android partners. They once again focus on Apple to the detriment of the real, pervasive problem.
Here's the whiplash inducing pivot, where the Times transitions from a story about a smaller developer sued by a larger company into Apple’s various lawsuits:
Vlingo was a tiny upstart on this battlefield, but as recent litigation involving Apple and Samsung shows, technology giants have also waged wars among themselves.
Billion-dollar companies sue each other all of the time, and Apple's lawsuits don't really showcase the larger problems of patent litigation. Apple will survive. Samsung will survive. They'll continue to make computers and phones, refrigerators and televisions, and life will go on. Google will continue making money from ads, no matter the platform. No, the real issues with patent litigation are highlighted by the story of Vlingo. Vlingo was a company specializing in speech recognition software. In 2008, they were threatened with lawsuits unless they sold to Nuance, a much larger company in the same field. When a small company is sued by a much larger one, even when the smaller company is in the right, it can be devastating.
When the first lawsuit went to trial last year, Mr. Phillips won. In the companies’ only courtroom face-off, a jury ruled that Mr. Phillips had not infringed on a broad voice recognition patent owned by Mr. Ricci’s company.
But it was too late. The suit had cost $3 million, and the financial damage was done. In December, Mr. Phillips agreed to sell his company to Mr. Ricci.
Vlingo won the case, but because of the legal expense, they had to sell to Nuance anyway. This is the danger, that the cost of defending yourself is so high that it isn’t worth it, regardless of whether or not you are in the right. The experience was so disheartening that Michael Phillips, co-founder and former CTO of Vlingo, left the voice recognition field altogether after selling his company to Nuance.
So why does this matter? Why should we care about the smaller companies, like Vlingo? Why not go for the big sexy Apple headline and leave it at that? Because nothing starts big. Apple didn’t. Google didn’t. The real innovations start small. It’s here that the Times missed an opportunity. While this story does cap the Times article, it’s used mainly as a springboard to talk about Apple’s legal issues with other large companies. Instead of spending page after page talking about the big players, they could have shone a light on the real threats to innovation within our patent system, the larger players picking off the smaller ones. The patent trolls like Lodsys targeting indie app developers. That is what will stifle the next iPhone, that next great innovation that changes how we think about and interact with technology, and keep it from the light of day for a long, long time.
Make Apple the headline. They get a lot of attention and they generate a lot of views. But don't make them the whole story. If you're going to write about patents of mass destruction, the big, predictable, super-power players that trade fractions of their billions all the time are, for lack of a better term, boring. It's the rogue entities, the ones that kill small companies, that are interesting and that will ultimately shape the future of technology.
And the Times' obsession with Apple is once again preventing them from telling it.
Source: The New York Times
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