|The iPhone "slide to unlock"|
In the past two years, legal disputes have erupted over digital-image storage methods, camera designs, Wi-Fi technologies and well-known software applications like email and calendars, as well as secondary features most consumers barely notice.Non-insiders will be surprised to learn that major battles are being fought over slide-to-unlock technology. Patent-holder Apple is suing rivals Motorola and Samsung over their "stretch-to-unlock" and drag-outside-the-circle unlocking techniques. Meanwhile, Samsung has unearthed an older patent that has some features similar to Apple's. (Disclosure: I am long Apple.)
The larger issue is the mess that is U.S. patent law. Patents that should never have been approved are stifling innovation while disputes are being contested in overburdened courts. An entire industry of patent trolls has been built around the extraction of royalties from producers who, usually unknowingly, have infringed upon an idea that someone has patented but not exploited with an actual invention. In this litigious environment I am personally acquainted with very small companies who spend precious management and financial resources on obtaining patents for largely defensive reasons.
One of the principal issues in this election year concerns whether and how much taxes, regulation, and other government activities are stalling the American economic engine. Our patent and intellectual property laws--and their administration--clearly contribute to the problem. However, because of the powerful interests on various sides of the question, not to mention its complexity, it is highly unlikely we'll soon see a solution that improves the general welfare.