Virulent Word of Mouse

September 17, 2011

Smartphone patents and platform wars

Firms in the smartphone market have been suing one another over patent violations. I cannot recall any other platform war that involved as many intellectual property disputes.

Look, society grants patents as part of trade-off. A patent enhances the incentives to generate new invention by giving the inventor a temporary monopoly. That trade-off should never be far from the top of the discussion. Let me say that another way: Artificial monopolies are clearly bad for the economy. There is no reason to grant them unless society gets something in return, such as more invention.

It is easy to speculate that something is amiss. Was society still on the good side of this trade-off when a non-practicing entity sued RIM-Blackberry for hundreds of millions of dollars, even though the dispute involved patents invented by someone who never got close to putting them into a viable business? Was society on the right side of this trade-off when a consortium spent four billion dollars for patents in bankruptcy court from Nortel, a firm that made some very bad bets during the dot-com boom and had run itself into the ground? Was society on the same side of the trade-off when Google felt so cornered that it bought Motorola for its patents, and, after it was announced, very few analysts saw any reason to point that Google also received tens of thousands of talented engineers as part of the deal?

This is a way of introducing a recent article, “Owning the stack: The legal war to control the smartphone platform.” I recommend it. It appeared in Ars Technica. It brought considerable clarity to events by explaining the actions and motives of various players in the recent patent wars involving smartphones. It was written by James Gimmelman at NYU law school, and recommended to me by David Laskowski, a student from a prior class at Kellogg (Thanks David!).

This post passes on that recommendation and offers a few comments.

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