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My friend Sawyer was as disappointed in the outcome of Bilski as he was in the ending to LOST. In fact, he asked if I’d change his pseudonym to Joseph Adama of Caprica but I vetoed this over extreme nerdiness. Nonetheless Sawyer let loose on Bilski and helps clarify both his perspective on why the Supreme Court took such a milquetoast approach as well as what one of the unintended consequences of their action – or lack thereof – will be. And for those of you who have forgotten Sawyer’s background, he’s a patent attorney that is channeling his opinion through me. And we’ve been discussing setting up a very large data center on an island somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Seeing the reaction to Bilski, what has struck me is how surprised and disappointed some people are with the weak will of the Supreme Court to act to limit the damage that software patents are causing, and will keep causing, to innovation in the U.S.
As I’ve written before, software patents amount to an innovation tax, transferring wealth from people who build things and make stuff to investment bankers, hedge funders, and, most of all, patent prosecutors and litigators. If you think that bankers and lawyers drive innovation, this is a “good thing”; otherwise, this is an utterly disastrous government-sanctioned redistribution of wealth that discourages software innovation. Software innovation continues, by the way, in spite of the patent system, not because of it.
Courts may or may not understand the negatives of the patent system, but they’re the last place we should look for positive change. As others have written about, the Supreme Court has become a rubber stamp on public opinion and on Congress. On the issue of IP, Congress is in the pocket of media companies, biotech companies, large software companies, and lawyers (all of whom can afford to litigate IP suits), and popular opinion skews in the “pro-patent” direction because awareness and interest are low when thousands upon thousands of people remain unemployed for the longest periods of time in decades.
Given a fearful, conservative Court unable to affect meaningful change in most areas until the whole country is behind it, the expectation that the Supreme Court would strike software patents down was folly. Judges don’t know enough, and don’t care enough, to stick their necks out against the monied special interests that control the levers of power. The current system, constructed in part by the pro-patent judges at the Federal Circuit, who have appointed themselves as the ultimate shepherds of this country’s pro-patent mentality, will continue to rule the roost. And the PTO, headed now by the pro-patent former head of IP at IBM, David Kappos, will continue to treat patentees like “customers” and pump economy-destroying patents out as it if were the Fed printing money.
So, yeah, we’re a little screwed. The Federal Courts have bought into the patent system; the PTO grants patents like there is no tomorrow; and Congress is poised to pass a completely eviscerated “patent reform” bill that will make patents harder to render unenforceable, among other things. The outlook is bleak. So what’s the answer, as more and more software patents are issued, and more and more startups and small businesses are sued into nothingness?
Move VC and seed investment in software abroad. This, I think, will be the unintended consequence of Bilski and the alignment of the government against innovation in software. When patents are the rule, and only big companies can play the patent game, small companies, the ones that are driving lots of employment and lots of innovation, will move to places that are both cheaper to live, and less risky legally.
As a counterpoint, a law professor claims that “startup executives reported that nearly 70% of venture capital firms and 50% of angel investors said that patents were important to their investment decisions.” This study was, of course, repudiated by the most credible person on it, Professor Pamela Samuelson. As Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson have said repeatedly, patents have almost no impact on VC investment because, among other things, it takes 4-5 years to get them, and in the current software startup climate, your business will prove itself in 1-3 years one way or another. The fiction that strong patent rights lead to more domestic VC investment is highly damaging and utterly false in software, an industry where low capital intensity and low barriers to entry make product and user acquisition, not “IP,” king.
What Bilski means for software is that the advantages of starting software businesses abroad have become even more clear. The tax situation and cost of living in, say, South America, is much better than in the U.S. currently. Now that startups have to live in fear of the uncertainty of the U.S. patent system, when they could be wiped off the face of the Earth by legal fees and customer loss in the span of a few months by the mere filing of a patent suit, and with an entire government that seems to have no sympathy toward their small businesses, why start a software company in the United States? A determined group of developers could start the same company in, say, Brazil, make their venture money last much longer, and with a higher quality of life at a lower cost of living. Seed and VC investment beginning to move to more hospitable legal climates is inevitable, and Bilski will be the straw that begins the flood of such investments overseas. The only barrier is moving the developers abroad, but communities already growing in foreign countries could begin an exodus that our government seems to want to encourage.
At minimum, U.S. startups will begin locate some portion of their operations abroad. Although the law is unsettled, and highly dependent on the patents at issue, the AT&T v. Microsoft and NTP v. RIM cases indicate that moving operations abroad, like the creation of golden masters and the location of web servers, could insulate some portion of a company’s operations from U.S. patent damages, which cannot be extraterritorial. For sure, locating everything in the U.S. is an invitation for patent plaintiffs to claim worldwide damages on software patent system claims involving a server.
Surely the Supreme Court didn’t intend to drive our most innovative companies abroad, but it may be time for innovators in the U.S. to fight the system the only way that they can when the whole government is out to get them – get out of dodge.