By Greg Mills
The Monday morning coffee at too many law firms is still brewing while the top legal minds are plotting a new law suit against Apple. Frankly, I get tired of reading stories about the new law suit of the day being filed against Apple, for whatever reason.
Some of the lamest suits have been filed and dismissed in recent years. It is interesting to me that the filing of a suit and the dismissal of most of them are treated far differently by the press. With great fanfare the suite is filed' without even a blip on the screen the suite goes away. The hope of most of those filing suits is for an out-of-ourt settlement.
At any given time, there are likely a hundred or more suits still pending against Apple. It takes a small army of lawyers to keep up on them all and not allow a deadline to pass without answering actions of the other side. Holding a portfolio of patents also costs a fortune and requires another division of lawyers to keep up on patent applications and the tortured processes at the US Patent Office. I have often wondered what the ratio of engineers to lawyers is at Apple.
Being a fairly jaded inventor myself, I both love and hate the patent process. The promise of protecting ideas is grand, but the reality is less so. In recent years the Patent Office has been transformed into a place that extracts funds in any way possible -- and at the end of the process gives you a patent, which is only a license to sue in Federal Court if you want to protect that idea. If you have a few billion in the bank and an army of lawyers on retainer, that is the way you do business. You sue and get sued by competitors.
Sometimes you settle and license the technology to further your product line and use ideas you like. Other times you simply buy the company to obtain their patent portfolio. Most of the time you simply do the legal process, knowing most of the time you can wear the opponent down or out spend them in the process. You bury them with paper. You know that even a valid claim will finally work out in the form of a deal to license and pay some amount for the technology.
The vast majority of patent suits against Apple are "will it stick to the wall?" sorts of suits. The interpretation of patents can be broad or narrow. A lot of interpretation and argument is made before the courts to force a license agreement or dismiss a suit. Holding a lot of patents is like holding a bunch of cards you can use to trump a competitor who sues with similar technology to what you are using. Sometimes you simply engineer your way around a patent claim, sometimes you can't. Sometimes you argue the patent is invalid.
The patent portfolio is also the ammunition used for suing actual infringing companies who copy everything Apple does. It is possible with enough attorney power and a valid patent to actually get the system to work as advertised.
It makes me tired just thinking about it. My experience is that, as an individual inventor, getting the Patent System to work to protect my ideas is sort of like trying to roll a large boulder up a hill. If you stop pushing, it will roll back over you. Deep pockets will prevail no matter how egregious the infringement. The Federal Court system is incredibly expensive, and it is always a crap shoot to sue.
I am glad I gave up my plans to become a lawyer some years back, got right with God and got into honest work....
(Greg Mills is currently a Faux Artist in Kansas City. Formerly a new product R&D man for the paint sundry market, he holds 11 US patents. He's working on a solar energy startup using a patent pending process of turning waste dual pane glass into thermal solar panels used to heat water. Married, with one daughter still at home, Greg writes for intellectual web sites and Mac related issues. See Greg's web sites at http://www.gregmills.info . He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)