Two recent events illustrate better than almost anything the difference between the worlds that proponents of patent reform, and their opponents, want to see.
Firstly, in a move that might strike a lesser company as suicidal, Google began literally giving away some of its own patents to startups as a way to recruit companies to its anti-patent troll drive. While these gifts come with some pretty stiff requirements for a company’s profitability in order for them to be eligible, the fact remains that Google itself gets almost nothing out of the deal other than an ally in the fight against abusive patent litigation (of which Google is a frequent target).
If nothing else, this should put to bed the constant accusation that Google is seeking only to improve its own profits by reforming the patent system. In actuality, it is behaving like the epitome of a good corporate citizen by helping other companies to be yet more profitable at no obvious financial gain to itself. It’s the sort of thing one can imagine, say, Hank Rearden from Atlas Shrugged doing: literally handing over products at no cost to competitors out of sheer respect for their plucky desire to innovate, and solidarity with that goal.
On the other hand, this week also saw the world become aware of a lawsuit filed by another web company that would be funny if it didn’t have such serious consequences for its target. Specifically, the Jewish-focused dating app JDate filed a lawsuit late last year alleging that a competitor, JSwipe, had violated its patent…on the letter J.
If this lawsuit prevails, then the law will have officially left reality and entered Sesame Street. Where else can the phrase “this message brought to you by the letter J” (which is to say, by JDate, which claims to own said letter) have actual legal ramifications?
Granted, this seems unlikely, given that JDate’s previous lawsuits against competitors over nothing beyond simply being competitors have also failed. But one wonders whether, if a non-Jewish competitor calling itself “GoyDate” sprung up, JDate would sue them, claiming it has a patent on the word “date” itself!
Unfortunately, while the JDate school of patent litigation is unlikely to get the results it wants in court, the fact remains that most companies are much more like JSwipe than Google, and probably lack the resources to engage in a lengthy and costly court battle. Which means that even nonsensical patents like JDate’s alleged ownership of the letter “J,” or the Schlafly beer company’s claim that only it can use the name “Schlafly” (something even a famous relative of its founder contests), are still worth a pretty penny in the wrong hands. Something needs to be done about this.
And if not for apologists for the current patent regime spinning outright lies, something would have been this month. But now, the only bill that both addresses this crisis and has the support of Congressional leadership has been stymied, often by people parroting the aforementioned outright fictions.
Well, if nothing else, the last week should put this much about the fight over patents into stark contrast: We can live in a world where companies operate in the style of Google, or one where they can engage in rampant industry protectionism like JDate. At the risk of infringing on the patent of whoever owns the word “swiping,” I would suggest we make like dating app users, and swipe right on Google, and swipe Left on JDate.