Legal tangles over patents are stifling innovation and will lead to stagnation in the tech industry, said Google's chief patent lawyer in a newspaper interview in the San Francisco Chronicle.
"The concern is that the more people get distracted with litigation, the less they'll be inventing," said Tim Porter, Google's patent counsel.
Google are particularly touchy on the patent issue, with their mobile OS Android on the receiving end of several attacks from Oracle, Microsoft, and Apple. Apple have specifically targeted Android's partners – Samsung and HTC – in obstructive lawsuits that span the globe.
Porter argues that a period of poorly administered patent law in the '90s and early 00s has built up a backlog of problems. There was a 10- or 15-year period when "the issuance of software patents was too lax", he said, with patents going to unoriginal, vague proposals that have fuelled the litigation and legal trouble that is happening now.
"Software patents are written by lawyers in a language that software engineers don't even understand," he said.
The patent lawyer isn't just advocating a shakeup but a radical rethink, going so far as to say as to say that a copyright system for software might be better:
You can look at the development of the software industry and see a point when (software wasn't being patented) and it was a period of intense innovation. You didn't see Microsoft's first software patent until 1988. By that time it had come out with Word, not to mention DOS.
I think the question is whether the current system makes sense. During the period I talked about, software was protected by copyright and other legal protections. There are certainly arguments those are more appropriate.
Porter predicts an apocalyptic slow-down in tech innovation if patents are allowed to clamp down on the tech industry, drawing a lurid warning from history:
The period of intense patent assertions (against things like the steam engine) resulted in decades-long periods of stagnation. Innovation only took off when the patents expired.
Ultimately though it's going to take more than an opinion piece to end the patent wars. See our recent story on the patent bubble. ®