Cybernaut 

Rethinking patents in high tech

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Is an idea really patentable? Or do you actually have to do something with that idea – design it, prototype it, test it and attempt to sell it – for a patent to mean anything?

Recently the tech world has been rocked by patent claims, some of them filed by companies that don’t do much of anything these days but had a good idea for something a long time ago with limited success. Others are stretching the general concept behind their patents to apply to similar technologies.

The recent NTP lawsuit against Research In Motion for software used on their Blackberry devices is a good example, as was RIM’s own patent lawsuit against a company called Good Technologies over keypad design.

After RIM settled the suit by NTP this year for about $612.5 million, another company called Visto stepped forward to sue RIM for four different patent infringements. See what happens when you settle for more than half a billion?

Apple is currently being sued by Creative, which alleges that Apple stole their concept for navigating through music files on an iPod – the third patent infringement suit to be filed against the iPod when you include suits by Pat-rights and Contois Music & Technology.

Apple Computers just beat a suit by Apple Records, the Beatles’ old label, because Apple Records thought it owned the whole patent on the ‘Apple + Music’ association – even if pressing vinyl LPs in the ‘70s has nothing to do with selling digital music through the Internet in 2006.

Another new suit was launched this week against the top U.S. cable companies – Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Charter Communications and Comcast – by a small company called USA Video Technology. The suit alleges that the cable companies stole their general idea to offer video-on-demand services even though the original patent was filed in 1990, long before the move to high speed internet and the emergence of home digital video recorders.

This is just the tip of the iceberg on patent cases being waged by the tech industry that if nothing else it drives home importance of patenting all of your ideas.

All you really have to do is to imagine a new technology or a major variation of existing tech that you can realistically see emerging in the future. Then form a company to develop it. Write down the specifics of your idea, draw a few diagrams how it will work, and file your patent applications.

Then wait – when another company with an actual R&D department one day makes your idea a reality (and keep in mind there’s no such thing as a true original thought in technology – read your sci-fi) then hire yourself a team of lawyers and sue for millions. If you’re lucky the company will settle for a huge amount of money out of court and you can retire without doing more than filing some paperwork.

You’ll need a shell company in the U.S. if you really want to cash in, but you’ll need to start at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office at http://patents1.ic.gc.ca <. First things first, check the database to make sure your great idea isn’t infringing on another patent – you don’t want to be the one who gets sued.

And then, when you win your patent case against big tech I’ll turn around and sue you – after all, filing a patent and suing the first company that makes your idea a reality was my idea. Patent pending.

Google puts out a spread

Last week the Internet was abuzz with the revelation that Google was about to launch an online spreadsheet application, seemingly in competition with Microsoft’s ubiquitous Excel.

When you include Google’s recent acquisition of Writely.com into the equation, an online word processing program, you end up with a lot of conjecture that Google is getting ready to go head to head with Microsoft Office.

While there may be some merit to that line of thinking, there’s also the possibility that Google is merely trying secure its niche within the Web 2.0 framework. If you’re not familiar with the concept of Web 2.0, there’s a basic explanation at www.webopedia.com/, and it’s discussed in infinitely more detail at www.oreilly.net.

There are a lot of different aspects to Web 2.0, but one of the more compelling aspects is the gradual move from disk-based software to web-based software programs accessible through the Internet.

You’ll need a Gmail account to access the beta version of the spreadsheet, located at http://spreadsheets.google.com/

Gates stepping down

This week ago Microsoft Chair Bill Gates announced he was stepping back from the company’s day to day operations in 2008 to work full time with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He will remain the chair of the board, but other executives will be calling the shots.

Two weeks I wrote about the cult of celebrity and how being in the public eye was a drain on Gates. I also mentioned that he could never step down because the value of Microsoft stock, and the majority of Gates’ own net worth, would drop because Gates’ golden aura is what gives investors confidence.

Looks like he’s stepping down anyway, and financial gurus have already started to project what the economic impact might be on Microsoft before and after Gates’ departure.

You can read more about Bill Gates' decision to step back at www.microsoft.com.

Website of the Week

www.popsci.com/ – If you’ve read this far you probably think tech is at least a little cool, but what is tech but a branch of science? I visit the Popular Science Magazine website regularly to see what’s new, and to browse the entertaining How2.0 section. Best of all you don’t have to be a scientist to understand the writing – Popular Science is quite good at simplifying complex concepts so anyone can understand them.

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