New York Times explores patents of mass destruction, once again focuses on Apple and misses the broader story

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

Joseph Keller is the former Editor in Chief of iMore. An Apple user for almost 20 years, he spends his time learning the ins and outs of iOS and macOS, always finding ways of getting the most out of his iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac.

  • What a great write up! Spot on and well received! Innovation is crippled when the visions of small businesses are bullied by large companies who believe that they can just buy the next big thing. Sad buy true...
  • Classic misdirection. In your zeal to direct the spotlight away from Apple, you miss the larger point. Yes, patent trolls are bad. Yes, big companies bullying small companies are bad. These happen because trolls have nothing to lose, and big companies can win a war of attrition, respectively. What has not happened on anything near this scale is one big company bullying (or righteously pursing, depending on your POV) another big company. *THAT* is why this is newsworthy. As bad as trolls and big vs small bullying are, Apple's actions mean it is going to get much, much worse, as big companies realize that the best defense is a good offense, and that trolling can work on their scale, too. The linked article talks about the sickening change in attitude at Apple after they were forced to pay $100 million to Creative on a questionable patent. (The section entitled "A Patent Warrior's Education) Yes, Apple was victimized by Creative, but, in their determination not to be victimized again, they have become the very monster they fought, arguably worse. And now Apple pursues Samsung with the same vigor with which Creative pursued them. It does not take Nostradamus to predict what Samsung's response will be. Or the response of Samsung's target after them. It takes a fatuous idiot to think the road we are locked into can have the slightest benefit to technology or society as a whole. THAT is why this is news. THAT is why Apple is the subject. Not because Apple is woe-is-me picked on by the press, but because their actions are the clearest bellweather yet signaling our course is going to get much, much worse.
  • Dev from tipb is right. Apple is the most valuable company in the world right now. It deserves all the attention it gets on all of its action. The article itself is about the myriad of problems that the US patent system faces. Mr. Keller seems to believe that the one Apple is not involved in is the major one. But, it isn't. Wasting billions of dollars on lawyers and patents every year, software patents that have almost no meaning, the difficulty of inventing a new product in the software field without stepping on a patent, these are huge problems. Apple's a big boy, they chose their path in patent litigation. And, there is a lot to criticize about their action. But, perhaps the end of the article was more instructive, Apple is just playing the game by the rules. They could choose not to play, but they do play. Maybe it is time for the rules to change.
  • +1
  • "His[Jobs] attitude was that if someone at Apple can dream it up, then we should apply for a patent, because even if we never build it, it’s a defensive tool," former Apple general counsel Nancy Heinen told NYT. "Even if we knew it wouldn't get approved, we would file the application anyway. If nothing else, it prevents another company from trying to patent the idea." - Innovation