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Patent Stupidity

Recent developments such as the Apple vs. Samsung trials, or Oracle's unsuccessful claim that it was owed $1bn (£640m) in compensation for Google's use of its technologies in the Android system have made many people wonder if these actions are damaging the industry. Patents have now become some of the most important assets held by technology companies. Google recently paid $12.5 billion for Motorola Mobility, mainly for its 17,000 patents. Earlier in the year, Microsoft bought 925 patents from AOL for $1.1 billion, later getting $550 million by selling on a portion of them  to Facebook. The patent arms race and the court battles surrounding patent infringements has reached a stage where the UN has seen fit to intervene, with major players like Microsoft, Apple and Google dragged together to decide whether the impact of patent disputes on innovation is just too high.

The titans of the tech industry might sometimes seem like they’re at each other’s throats, but it’s nothing compared to the foundations of the electrical age, with Thomas Edison electrocuting an elephant on a metal plate in a bid to discredit rival Nicola Tesla’s Alternating Current. The birth of Hollywood as the home of the film industry came about when industrious, if unscrupulous, moviemakers decided that they didn’t want to pay licensing the Edison Company enforced on their filmmaking patents, so they went as far as they could from Edison’s New York base in the hope that no one would collect fees. Of course, their views are very different now.

The Wright brothers, initially revered for their work on powered flight, fell out of favour with the public when their strictly-enforced patents were seen to be retarding the growth of the nascent aviation industry, and even damaging America’s efforts in World War 1.

Technology patents have been around since 500 BC, and have been in common use since the fifteenth century, but it seems that they still haven’t hit a balance between providing protection to innovators without stifling future innovation. Often, they remain in the hands of people who have been beaten at market by similar products, and used against those who succeeded. And at a time when it’s possible to essentially patent a square with rounded corners, it doesn’t look like the system will get better any time soon. As is often the way, The Onion has the most insightful take on the issue.

What feuds have you found particularly interesting, and which do you think have irrefutably damaged the companies involved?

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