During my tech days, I co-authored four software patents. Each cost my startup about $15,000—which seemed like a fortune in those days. I didn’t really expect these to give me any advantage; after all if my competitors had half a brain, they would simply learn all they could from my patent filing and do things better. But I needed to raise financing, and VCs wouldn’t give me the time of day unless I could tell a convincing story about how we, alone, owned the intellectual property for our secret sauce. We got the financing, and the plaques of the patents looked great in our reception area, so the expense was worth it. But there was definitely no competitive advantage.
Patents make a lot of sense in many industries; they are needed to protect the designs of industrial equipment, pharmaceutical formulations, biotechnology products and methods, biomedical devices, consumer products (toothpaste, shampoo, contact lenses, etc.), advanced materials & composites, and of course, widgets (lighting fixtures & elements, batteries, toys, tools, etc.). But in software these are just nuclear weapons in an arms race. They don’t foster innovation, they inhibit it. That’s because things change rapidly in this industry. Speed and technological obsolescence are the only protections that matter. Fledgling startups have to worry more about some big player or patent troll pulling out a big gun and bankrupting them with a frivolous lawsuit than they do about someone stealing their ideas.
New research by Berkeley professors Stuart J.H. Graham, Robert P. Merges, Pam Samuelson, and Ted Sichelman highlights the extent of this problem. They surveyed 1332 early-stage technology companies founded since 1998, of which 700 were in the software/internet space. Here is what they found: