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A legal revolution to re-start innovation evolution

Wednesday, 8 June 2011 — by

Innovation is expensive and wasteful, and it doesn’t matter if you’re living tissue or leading-edge technology, the same rules apply. What we need is a revolution in patent legislation to help start an evolution of innovation…

Google innovation, Apple iteration?

Apple announced a wide range of new technologies at their World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco on Monday the 6th of June. Some of those technologies were, let’s face it, iterative rather than innovative. Back in 2006, Steve Jobs himself once (in)famously mocked Microsoft’s alleged attempts at copying Apple’s principle operating system OS X with the slogan: “Redmond, Start Your Photocopiers”, Redmond in Washington being the home of Microsoft.

Now, all joking aside, the war of words between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, both co-founders of their respective and aforementioned companies has been going on for years. Well now, Google have entered into the fray. And to be fair, the Android camp have a fair argument that several of the key new technologies finding their way into iOS, the operating system used by Apple’s iPhone and iPad range of products are simply an attempt to play catch up with Google.

That said, for all the haters out there, Apple have been thinking about connected devices and services for a long time, as far back as 1997.

Now, I’m no Apple apologist, though I freely admit I am a died-in-the-wool Apple user through and through. I do not in any way doubt Google’s ability to innovate with their Android operating system, as they have, and in doing so, have leapt in front of Apple. But all of this territorial fanboy sniping and snarling is an aside, because there’s a much, much bigger issue at stake, here — innovation is expensive and wasteful.

The convergence of evolution and innovation

As I said to a Andy Bold on Twitter earlier in the week, as an aside to our discussion of the above topic of perceived and actual innovation, there are only a finite number of ways of achieving a specific goal. How do I know this? Because we only need look to nature. Over the course of eons, biological diversity has been as breathtaking in its sheer depth and breadth as it is astonishing in its complexity and variety. But with justified hyperbole aside, underlying this complexity is a layer of fundamental simplicity, which takes the form of shared traits, characteristics and designs.

In nature, this is called convergent evolution, where things like eyes, wings, fur and even blood having formed in completely different organisms whose common ancestors either did not have such attributes, or they were so primitive as to be irrelevant to the eventual adaptations.

Man cannot as yet harness the truly mesmeric ability of nature to design such a bewildering array of variations, not biologically or technologically. And this is where the problems begin, because as soon as some company evolves themselves towards something intrinsically unique, they’re entitled to patent their innovations. On the whole, I don’t think patents are “evil”, that’s an affectation we must leave to people, who choose to pervert and subvert patent law for purely monetary reasons, the so-called “patent trolls”.

For those companies following in the footsteps of innovation first-movers, they must steer their ship well clear of waters where the sharks of patent litigation swim. To avoid such things, they must innovate in such a way as to approach their particular problem from a sufficiently different angle to remain unique enough that patent litigation isn’t an issue. Either that or they pay the requisite licensing fees to access the patent rights.

No one wants a square wheel!

To re-frame this problem in simpler language, companies have to keep re-inventing the wheel. If the same commercially biased logic existed in nature, we would most likely all be blind, as the human eye would have been secured as a biological innovation and barred by some long extinct sea creature from all future usage.

But the problem is even worse because, as nature will attest, there are only a finite number of ways of doing the same thing, as Apple and Google are discovering. So where’s the problem? As I said, innovation is expensive and wasteful. And in this day and age, with dwindling resources, we can ill afford to go pissing time and money away on re-inventing the wheel when the original worked perfectly fine first time of asking, thank you very much!

As an example, consider an automotive manufacturer and the effort invested in re-creating something that obviates possible patent and legal fees. The needless expense and wasted energy and resources would most likely, if calculated appropriately, total several billion pounds. And this is but one company in one industry. We, as a people, can neither afford or justify this kind of thing anymore.

When innovation is patently wrong

So what’s the solution? Well, we can’t scrap patent law, although some might argue otherwise. But what we can do is look to the various patent offices of the world, and ask of them to work more closely together. In this way, they can pool their resources, find those innovations which are of the finite and restrictive variety, which severely limit the scope of further innovations and either not allow a patent to be issued, or impose maximum licensing fees, or reduce the lifespan of the patent. We could, for the sake of developing countries, go as far as making patents open source:

“A re-worked definition of Open Source in our new context would be: a technology, or series of technologies where the source knowledge, materials and know-how are readily available to the general public for use and / or modification from its original design free of charge.”

The benefits to society would be huge, vastly out-weighing any short-term economic hard inflicted on businesses who’s innovations were made open source.

And because the principles of open source apply, the company that invested their time, money, resources and expertise into the original innovation would have access to all adaptions to their technology by anyone choosing to license said technologies.

Okay, I’m an idealist. But I don’t think anything I’ve discussed here is beyond the realms of possibility. In fact, I think we’re going to see something like this happen as the pool of possible technological innovations begins to shrink, with more and more patent trolls chasing after spurious licensing fees, forcing legislators to re-consider how patents are awarded and why.

What we have now is patently wrong, but what we could have in the future would be as much evolutionary as revolutionary…

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