A patent used to be something to be proud of. You work hard, invent something creative and new, and protect your invention with a patent so nobody could rip off your design. Thomas Edison had over 2,000 patents granted to him to protect his inventions.
We've done some amazing things at Billtrust over the last 11 years, but one of things we haven't done is try to patent anything. I've always been a firm believer that vision and creativity are important, but execution is the name of the game.
So I was somewhat surprised to learn that on April 24th of this year, I was awarded a patent. Yay me! You can read about it here. This is actually a patent that was filed for way back in 1999, when I was at Paytrust, and VCs were enamored with funding companies with I.P. ("intellectual property").
This patent is a relatively new type of patent and it's not for an invention, but for a way of doing things - they're called Business Method Patents. Business method patents are issued for lots of things, like one click purchase from Amazon. This certainly doesn't feel Edison worthy, but the rules are the rules. I personally think they're completely bogus but I'm starting to question my beliefs.
One of the more repugnant types of business that are out there these days is the business of being a Patent Troll. These companies buy Patents from others for the sole purpose of suing companies with deep pockets. It's almost always cheaper to settle out of court so these companies make money with just the threat of a lawsuit. They don't invent things. They don't protect they're inventions. They exist solely to sue others. Gross.
Much has been written about patent reform, how we should do away with business method patents, but congress doesn't seem to want to do anything about it. Brad Feld writes about it persuasively and often - see here.
It's gotten so ridiculous that companies now buy blocks of patents from others just so they can have something to defend themselves with in case they're sued. AOL recently sold patents to Microsoft for $1.1 Billion dollars. Perhaps the only smart thing AOL has done in the last 15 years.
I say it's broken. The folks at Twitter think it's broken and have said they won't attack other companies with patents. Just about everybody thinks the patent system is broken, except for the trolls.
Since I'm a "Fix the problem, not the blame" kind of a guy, let me propose a solution. Let's "open source" our patents. If enough people agree to share their patents for the sole purpose of providing defense against frivolous lawsuits, we might be on to something. If Wikepedia can exist, this doesn't sound that hard.
I'll start. I hereby grant patent 8,165,958 to the common good. Who else is with me?