Patent News

Jan. 28, 2015

RCR Wireless News: Reality Check: Weakening wireless technology patents hurts everyone, by Adam Mossoff

This post originally appeared on RCR Wireless News on January 28, 2015.

Today, everyone connects effortlessly to the Internet via Wi-Fi technology when at home or in coffee shops, or on the move via the 3G or 4G networks used by smartphones and tablets.

Fifteen years ago, everyone was literally tethered to the Internet via a cable, usually a telephone line. Eight years ago, everyone had a “dumb” cell phone and there were no tablets. The exploding growth and lower prices in the high-tech industry have given everyone wireless capabilities to check e-mail, stream movies, play games and do many other things once thought of as science fiction.

For the hundreds of millions of people using Wi-Fi networks, it just works. Phones, tablets and laptops automatically recognize available Wi-Fi networks and sometimes automatically connect. It’s almost magical.

Few people are aware of the ongoing tens of billions of dollars in research and development that made this incredible progress possible. Even fewer people are aware of how patents have been key in recouping these huge R&D investments, allowing companies and their engineers to pursue ongoing high-tech developments from 2G to 3G to 4G to even faster and more reliable Wi-Fi networks in the coming years.

Instead, people read about the Apple-Samsung patent lawsuit and the “smartphone wars.” They hear cries of a “broken” patent system and that patent owners are allegedly “holding up” important technological developments. Ironically, they read these reports about the alleged “failures” of the patent system on their low-priced, fast-developing smartphones and tablets using Wi-Fi and thousands of other technological innovations brought to them by the patent system. The contradiction between rhetoric and reality is breathtaking.

Unfortunately, some companies are now taking advantage of this anti-patent rhetoric to weaken protections for patented innovation in technological standards.

For more than five decades, standard-setting organizations have worked efficiently in providing a means by which high-tech products and services can work on many different devices, such as digital storage devices like disc drives or memory sticks, USB connectors and Wi-Fi, among thousands of others. Everyone benefits from the work of SSOs, but they are not name brands known to consumers, like Apple, Microsoft or Intel; they are entirely the domain of engineers and tech geeks. For those of us who still read product manuals, we see their names in the fine print, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers or the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, among others.