For the tech world, this has been the summer of patents. One reason Google wants to purchase Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion is to grab its 24,000 active and pending patents. This will help Google compete with Apple, Microsoft and Oracle, who recently banded together to buy their own batch of patents. Meanwhile, “patent squatters” who buy patents to extract cash from people who actually make things are suing independent software developers and, in the process, threatening their ability to innovate without fear of litigation.
These stories about tech patents don’t just fascinate people who are techies, patent lawyers or clerks at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. When This American Life, that oracle of highbrow American culture, produces a show on patents, you know they have attained the status of the Culturally Important.
Meanwhile, a notorious filing from Apple has many concerned about what these companies actually do with their patents. A few months ago, we discovered that Cupertino had filed a patent for technology that would allow concert promoters to remotely disable concertgoers’ iPhone cameras. “So what?,” you ask.
Imagine if police or repressive governments used the same technology to stop citizens from documenting abuses. Want to capture police brutality on your phone? The police could disable your camera and continue their crimes. Want to share scenes from a democratic protest in the Middle East with the rest of the world? Ditto.
Cellphone cameras have become ubiquitous, and they’re already indispensable tools for free expression and democratic action. If Apple moves forward with this technology, you can bet anti-democratic forces will be quick to adapt it to their ends.
This week, I met up with an Apple representative to hand off the signatures of more than 25,000 activists who urged Apple CEO Steve Jobs to pull the plug on any project that would enable corporate or government censorship.
Just for fun, we delivered the signatures in a Macbook Pro box.
The Apple representative said he was happy to take these letters up the chain of command.
That’s a start. But our members made it clear that such an idea -- even if it’s just one of thousands of patents filed every month -- runs counter to our democratic ideals, and that the public will hold Apple accountableif it ever develops it.
So as Big Company A fights with Big Company B over expensive patent portfolios, remember that individual patents are often the seeds of real technology that has real consequences. It’s our job to call these patent-hungry companies to task when they overreach.