Thursday 22 May 2008

A Patent Parable

Three companies have come together to discuss interoperability between their products. The first company, Mud Corporation, has thousands of patents that, if not protected, risk becoming compromised. Mud could become vulnerable to loss of profits based on what was once a firm ownership of valuable intellectual property.

The second company, Tangerine, typically jumps ahead of the interoperability process in an effort to advance the power of their own innovations. They have great ideas but are perhaps too aggressive – implementing aspects of specifications that haven’t been formally approved. This opens up the opportunity for Tangerine to patent technologies developed in the Tangerine way, outside the specifications, setting up more interoperability problems down the road.

Finally, we have Small and Spongy, Inc. This company has typically done things its own way and has challenged core interoperability issues because Small and Spongy has massive influence. Why? They have their own kind of dynamite in the form of “market share” despite sporting a less superior but far more widely used product.

During the meeting, the primary issue is to figure out how to share technologies and retain those portions of ownership of patented technology that each company deems necessary. The group prioritizes a list of shared goals and deliverables, and begins to discuss each one and how it might or might not weaken or require the surrender of individually owned pieces.

Mud and Small and Spongy disagree about the way a deliverable is written, and an argument ensues. Mud, not willing to jeopardize a strongly prized patent, plays the “take our toys and go home” card, threatening to remove itself from the collaborative group.

Tangerine gets very frustrated because they don’t want to slow down their own growth with such issues. Tangerine representatives quietly leave the room.

Small and Spongy throw up their hands and say “Hey, we have market share, so we don’t have to care after all! Woohoo!” Small and Spongy representatives follow the Tangerines to the nearest bar and begin an eight hour Margarita binge.

Mud representatives, having protected their interests but not succeeded in addressing the interoperability issues, call it a day and join in the drinking, except for the four new fathers who go home to their upper middle class lives, wives and offspring.

The moral of this story is that interoperability threatens too many profits, and this is why we don’t have an interoperable Web.

Filed under:   general
Posted by:   Molly | 00:28 | Comments (18)

Comments (18)

  1. hi Molly,

    I absolutely agree with what you say, although I have no idea if there are any parallels between your completely fictitious organisations and the real world:-)

    However (don’t you just love that word) even if there are a load of hugely powerful and influential organisations who wave their huge broadswords slowly and ineffectively at each other, maybe it leaves room for the nimble skirmisher to dive between their legs and give them a prompt jab in the varicose veins.

    I’m prompted to think of the Open Source initiatives, who stoically fight aganst the odds to overturn the monopolies you refer to.

    Sometimes they do this deliberately, and in this I’m thinking about OpenOffice, and in other cases one or two people get a burning desire to change the world and just decide to cut through the beurocracy and just go for what they think.

    Perhaps it’s the time for these altrustic people to wade into the war of interoperability, and provide the glue to bind it all together.

    They would be the ‘first aiders’ of the world of technology 🙂

  2. Ah yes, the three companies (whose names have been altered, but we know who you mean really!) 😉

    Good parable Molly – I especially like the way two of the companies decide to go on ‘…an eight hour Margarita binge’ after things don’t go to plan in the meeting! hehe

    It always boils down to profits doesn’t it?

    The big winners from possibly improved interoperability are the users, who are also the customers of these companies, but until things change – the users are also the current losers.

  3. This story makes me sad 🙁

    But I really like it and I think it should be core reading in Marketing 101 classes in business schools around the world…

  4. What I like most about the story is your great sense of storytelling. If for whatever reason I need a narrative to explain a delicate and complex matter to someone (my boss?), I hope I can come to you! 🙂


  5. The case could be argued, successfully I believe, that the primary reason that Web interoperability is still a myth is that the natural filter of cost was diluted/removed at the Web’s inception.

    By the way, cost is determined in many forms other than just monetary.

  6. To say the web is non inter-operable is to ignore the points of the web which are good and which do work. I will admit to you that the web isn’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the points which are good.

    Think about what happens: A Mac, Windows, Linux, any other Unix-based flavour, and other operating systems, on all sorts of devices, can communicate with each other over vast web of cabling, and wirelessly, calling for and receiving textual and non-textual information that is displayed, most often, at least functionally, if not perfectly. Isn’t that incredible and amazing? For that to be achieved, there is some level of interoperability.

    We just need to focus on the importance of continuing the improvement of the current level of interoperability.

  7. I think everyone needs to listen to the father of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, he basically stated that ‘The web is meant to be accessible and usable by all, irrespective of race, creed, disability or location’.

    No browser vendor has the right to limit any of these demographics because of profits. In the end, as Jeremy Sydik said “It’s their web we are just building in it”. We can never expect to force our will on our users whether that be a target browser or a target platform.

    In the end, with regards to profits, these companies have to step back and look at the bigger picture. Provide a platform that is accessible to all irrespective of browser or platform.

    Access to the internet is not a privilege it is a right for all users.

  8. Patents are supposed to enhance our (people of the world) knowledge, patents were meant to be shared among everybody, patents were not supposed to limit our way of thinking.

    Unfortunatly, Patents have been corrupted (by dollars) a long time ago. Now patents are used to increase company’s profits, and to reduce other’s company market share.

    No solution is in sight.

  9. Our whole patent system is truly out-dated, especially for software. 20 years may be fine for some fields, but as fast as software moves and changes, as young of a discipline as it still is, 20 years is an eternity. Also, I think a lot of the patents granted shouldn’t be; some are just such obvious improvements.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but the system needs to be reworked somehow. Free Culture is a great book that talks about both copyright and patent issues. (It’s also free to read online.) I highly recommend it.

  10. The first US patent issued for the solar cell was, I believe, 1789. Each subsequent patent on solar cells was an improvement, improvement upon, what was at the time of its issuance, the existing current state-of-the-art.

    Profit and increase of market share is the definition of business. The quality of a business should not be judged by its profit motivation but rather by its moral/social basis behind its drive to achieve profit. Intellectual property can be a valuable tool in that equation.

    It can be argued that the Internet has not devalued intellectual property but that is has changed distribution of products/services. The failure of certain business segments, e.g. the recording industry, to adapt to a change in distribution by the segment’s customers represents such an example. The failure is not within intellectual property rights but in business that fails to adapt to market forces.

  11. when they get to the bar they find a gang of opensource hippies who started drinking an hour before.

  12. What I like most about the story is your great sense of storytelling.

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