I’m a tech guy in my professional life. I design and create software for a living and I follow the news around the software world very closely. I’ve been thinking about what issues would be most important from a tech perspective for the 2016 presidential election, and patent reform is hands-down number one.
Several years ago, when the iPhone first started allowing 3rd-party apps a year after it originally came out, my small company made the first vintage photo app. It was a hit at the time (though it has long-since been eclipsed by Instagram and now nobody remembers it), which had the upside of earning us money but the downside of making us more visible to patent trolls.
Most people are by now familiar with the concept of a patent troll: a business entity (often a shady sub-company with a hidden connection to its actual owners) that earns its income by acquiring patents and then finding individuals or companies who could theoretically be infringing on those patents. It then threatens those companies with a lawsuit, but offers them an alternate option to pay a “licensing” fee to make the whole matter go away, which fee is generally dramatically less than what litigation would cost. If this sounds like extortion, that’s because it essentially is.
My company was threatened by one of the world’s most egregious and sprawling patent trolls. They were wielding an old patent from the 90s that patented the idea of a fax machine being able to update its software over a modem, and we were supposedly infringing on this because our app had a button in it that linked to a completely separate photo app we made. They argued that this was effectively allowing users to “upgrade” our photo app in the same way their theoretical 90s fax machine was upgrading its software.
This of course was hogwash and we didn’t end up having to pay anything. The episode did have a real effect on our product development though. For years we avoided making apps with in-app purchases, because that’s the feature this particular patent troll was really going after with their fax machine patent. And there have been many other ideas we’ve thought about implementing but held off because, even though the ideas themselves were totally obvious, others had been having patent troll problems after implementing similar ideas in their software.
The legal situation that currently exists around patents is a true existential threat to innovation in such an important sector of future economic growth. Bills attempting to reform the system (by making vague patents harder to get in the first place, and by making it easier to recoup lawsuit costs if a company sues you for infringing and loses) have been going around, but nothing has yet healed the broken system in a meaningful way. The conventional wisdom is that this is due to the lobbying influence of trial lawyers, but I don’t know the situation well enough to make a judgment on that.
What I would say is that a presidential candidate who makes real patent reform an important goal of their future administration can have a serious positive influence on economic growth in a way that I’m not sure any other policy can.