Today’s New York Times has a wonderful article about the patent wars currently raging in the technology industry. You can read the article here:
Securing and enforcing patents is a classic defensive strategy; I spend a fair bit of time on it in my new book, Defending Your Brand. In theory it is all quite simple. You invent an idea, secure a patent and then own the concept for many years.
Apple is a master at using patents. The company received more than 4,000 patents since 2000 and is willing to enforce them, as the recent battle with Samsung demonstrates. This is one way Apple defends.
The reality is that patent battles quickly become very messy. It is hard to enforce patents. Competitors can challenge them. Patent wars can quickly escalate as companies secure dozens of different patents and then file suit to enforce them.
The article in today’s paper includes a wonderful graphic showing the current state of affairs in technology. Apple is suing Samsung and Samsung is suing Apple. Apple is also suing Nokia, Motorola (now part of Google) and RIM. Motorola is suing RIM and RIM is suing back. They all are suing HTC. You can sum it up by saying that just about everyone is suing everyone and the lawyers are becoming very wealthy.
I suspect that eventually the battles might settle down; the industry leaders may recognize that there is little to be gained with all this litigation.
One executive in the medical device industry explained to me how things work there: every established company can sue all the other companies. So litigation is relatively infrequent; one suit will just lead to another. It is mutually assured destruction (or at least mutually assured legal expenses).
Still, patents can protect existing industry players from outside attack. Any new entrant will likely face significant legal challenges. This becomes a major barrier to entry.
Steve Jobs apparently believed deeply in patents as important defensive tools. On this point he was, as usual, correct.