Sunday, December 10, 2006

Wiin some, lose some

Wired (not a source I ordinarily read, honest) reports that Nintendo, the makers of the Wii games console (pronounced as in "we" and not as in "wee", apparently; now that is a stupid name) are being sued by a California company for using a patent owned by the latter. The patent involves a "Trigger-operated Electronic Device", and the company is complaining because Nintendo have developed a device, called a Wiimote, which responds to arm-and-hand movements as well as incorporating buttons. (Maybe they got Jonathan Woss to name these products.)

The US patent system is really getting out of hand, and this suit shows it. We all know that the Americans are famous for, erm, indulging in what one might politely call "frivolous lawsuits". Software patents, thank God, somehow have managed not to make it over here (Europe) yet, though they keep trying, but in the States Microsoft has now claimed (thankfully not in court - probably because they have no proof) that Linux infringes on Microsoft patents, whilst Apple has a patent on maximizing a window. Let me just check -- yep, Microsoft is infringing on an Apple patent by including a maximize button.

The thing about patents (actually two things) is that (a) the 50-year lifespan of a US patent is designed for a time when technological progress was much slower; (b) they are supposed to be awarded for non-obvious inventions. I don't know about you, but as a computer enthusiast (if nothing else), maximizing and minimizing a window seems to be rather obvious to me. And as others have pointed out, the US Patent and Trademark Office awards patents "willy-nilly" and leaves it to the courts to sort it out - thereby penalizing small companies and helping big ones grow even larger - the exact opposite of the original intent of patents, viz. to "protect innovation".

To a certain extent this is understandable - to a large section of the population, which probably form the majority if not the entirety of the workforce at the USPTO, computers appear to be non-obvious in the extreme; therefore it's not surprising that some very useful but simple "inventions" get patented, but the USPTO really needs to be reformed. At the very least, i.e. short of reforming the law, they need to get people in who know the technology field - after all, as a non-driver I don't sit at the front of the bus telling the driver how to move the thing, and I wouldn't expect someone who doesn't know a word of Spanish to give me a lecture on how to write a letter of complaint to my local MP (if my local MP were Spanish, anyway).

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