On Patents

Patents drive me crazy.

While on the one hand, they protect the intellectual property of a company or individual, on the other hand, they are completely ruining the technology industry. Instead of spending time innovating, and building systems for the betterment of our society, companies are embroiled in litigation with each other over incredibly vague and abstract patent concepts, and are thereby blocking a lot of incredible opportunities for innovation.

I think the patent system needs to be reinvented. Here’s how I think it should work:

  • The first person or company to submit a valid patent (the current rules on this are okay*) on intellectual property should be awarded the patent.
  • *However, patents should not be awarded purely on design unless the design is critical to the functionality (such as a particular shape that allows a function to work). In essence, technology patents should be on function, not form.
  • The patent should immediately apply for 3 years if it’s related to a physical product or hardware (a tangible item).
  • The patent should immediately apply for 2 years if it’s a business concept or software product. Basically, if it’s an intangible or semi-tangible idea.
Now, here’s where it needs to be very clear:
  • If the intellectual property (IP) is usable and complete (ie, a fully drafted model for intangibles, or a working prototype for tangibles), then the patent should extend for a base period of, say, 50 years.
  • However, if during that time the IP fails to procure revenue, fails to make it to market, or fails to become publicly available in any manner, the patent should only apply for a maximum of 10 years.
  • If it’s a tangible patent (product or hardware) but the IP owner has not yet built a prototype or physical product, the patent should apply for only 3 years.
  • If it’s an intangible patent (concept, model or software), and the patent owner has not yet produced a working model or usable product from it, the patent should apply for 2 years.

In effect, on those latter two, if you secure a patent, but fail to produce anything under that patent, the patent should be revoked after 3 years for tangible items, 2 years for intangible. However, there should then be a grace period after that, to be fair for things like economic conditions that make the 2-3 year period reasonable:

  • The patent should remain vague on public records (a description without full IP details) for a maximum of 2 years after being awarded the patent, to give the patent holder a reasonable time to secure a working prototype, if applicable.
  • For a functional patent (one that applied for 50 years), the patent can simply be renewed, but the above conditions must still be met.
  • For a functional patent that failed to produce revenue, or for a tangible or intangible patent that never reached a completed state, at the end of the patent period, the¬†patent should be automatically made available for sale, with a price set at 150% of the cost of registering the patent. The patent owner may optionally “repurchase” their own patent.
  • Any buyer (including the original owner) now has half the time available to fulfill all of the above (except for the 50-year patent, provided the rules are still being met).
  • The process can repeat until a patent has a 30-day life or less, at which time it becomes void.
And then one additional magic rule:
  • If you fail to allow your patent to be licensed to any other companies, all of the above times are immediately cut in half at the time you are awarded the patent; whether you are awarded the patent by merely having it approved, or if it’s by purchasing it.
And one exception:
  • If you are awarded a patent and are then able to license the patent to another company (without producing a tangible product yourself), that company must meet the above conditions (ie, creating a working prototype) in the same timeframe as though they owned the patent themselves. But if the license ends, or if the product doesn’t meet the above criteria, the same timeframes still apply. This prevents someone from securing a license, but then simply never producing anything from it. They would still need to meet the criteria as though they themselves owned the patent.

Basically, this would completely eliminate patent trolls, and would prevent any company from securing a patent and then simply blocking anyone else from implementing it while the owning company or individual simply sits on it waiting to collect money. To ensure that happens, a company would be perfectly free to develop a product that is a complete rip-off of a patent, and then simply wait out the patent’s life and either purchase the patent, or wait until it expires and then produce a working product with no licensing requirements. This gives the owning company or individual time to make their patent usable (hence the brief period where the patent is not publicly available) in order to secure the 50 year patent, or effectively give up their rights to the patent. Meanwhile, another company may steal the idea and owe you no royalties, but really, if you can’t produce a usable product from your patent, you don’t deserve to own it. With the licensing requirement as an option, this ensures that companies who are genuinely interested in the patent will be motivated to license it, rather than risk waiting for it to become void, knowing that a competitor could simply scoop up the patent.

In effect, if you invent a concept for, say, software, but it never sees the light of day, your patent goes up for sale in 2 years. If it fails to sell within 1 year, it becomes void. If it sells, the buying company then has to the end of that 1 year period to produce something usable. If they fail to, the next buying company has 6 months. Then 3 months, then 1.5 months, and then the patent is void. Thus, a software patent that never comes to fruition is void in just shy of four years. With hardware, just shy of six.

Goodbye patent trolls. Goodbye ridiculous litigation over intellectual property. Hello fair competition and innovation.

What do you think?

Focus Mode

November is nanowrimo – National Novel Writing Month. While the goal is to produce a novel of 50,000 words by the end of the month, I’m likely to be far short of that.

However, I’m also not writing a novel. I’m taking the time to focus on writing a guide, if you will, to teach non-project managers how to do project management without getting into the overkill practices that are commonly associated with project management disciplines.

It’s based on the SMART management system I developed about a decade ago, and that I’ve been using for years to help guide projects through to completion. And in the process of doing this, I’ve realized that while a goal of 50,000 words is a great target to set, a goal of producing a focused result is better. Whether it be 100,000 words, or 1,000 words, the point is: can I be focused enough to provide the minimum of what is needed to get the point across?

I may not get it done by the end of November. But the concept of nanowrimo is all about the focus. Dedicating your time each day to a focused task, and achieving that result by a deadline. And in the end, that’s really the essence of project management: setting a deadline, and working hard to meet the result. The idea of a “focus mode” has been around for a while, and even tech companies are capitalizing on the effectiveness of it; with companies like Apple encouraging “full screen apps” and the single-window model of the iPad, which encourages uni-tasking above multi-tasking.

[pullquote2 align=”center” variation=”deepblue”]How are you using the month of November? Are you writing a novel, a training manual, a story, or a guidebook? When November is over, will you turn off focus mode and go back to chaos mode? Or are you willing to turn December into another focused month with a specific goal to meet by the 31st?[/pullquote2]

Before the new year, and the abundance of abandoned new years’ resolutions, why not make a decision now–today–to turn each month into a focused month. Start with November. If you aren’t writing a novel, make November a month to plan out the next 12. Each month, pick something you really want, or need, to accomplish in your life, and set a focus for the entire month. Make December a family-focused month. Make January a decluttering month. Make February a rebudgeting month. Whatever your life needs are, make it a focus for one month each year. And every once in a while, don’t forget to set aside time to reevaluate the things that matter, so that each month becomes a focus on things you really need to concentrate on.

Good luck, and let me know how you make out in the comments!

Responding to Failure

By now, I’m sure most people have heard of the global outage experienced by RIM a few weeks ago. Shortly after the outage, RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis offered a public apology for the issue, and RIM itself offered free apps and a month of free technical support in response, which were received with mixed reactions.

My comment, on both Twitter and Facebook that RIM clearly just “doesn’t get it” was met with some confusion as well. One person indicating that the difference between a regular mobile plan and a smartphone plan is about $10/month. So, a refund on services equates to about 30 cents a day, so a three-day outage means a $1 refund.

All joking aside, that’s actually accurate. A recent lawsuit confirms that it equates to only about $1.25. The cost of the outage, per person, is negligible. But, at least that has a monetary value that directly corresponds to the outage. $100 worth of free apps (most of which are games, and targeted at business professionals) is just out in left field.¬†And that’s the reason why I said that RIM doesn’t get it. As a company that appeals to businesses as a primary market, the offering of free apps and free technical support was an insulting and degrading statement.

If your product is so problematic that you need technical support, such that a month of free support is valuable, you have a problem with your product right there. Most businesses however, run on annual budgets, and paid technical support is budgeted. Adding a month of free support to the end of the plan also means that billing cycles just got shifted by a month, and the cost associated with making budget adjustments accordingly far exceed the $1 refund or the lost business associated with the outage. As many companies are relying on mail communication through enterprise-grade servers, a three day outage is a serious problem when they are paying for a service that offers a 99.99% uptime guarantee. For the record, 99.99% uptime means that service is “guaranteed” not to be down for more than 20 minutes per year.

When you’re paying for that, any outage–even accidents–is considered professionally unacceptable. Most home users won’t care. But business users are paying for service guarantees, and make decisions accordingly. Three days of downtime can translate to millions in lost revenue.

Personally, I think RIM would have been better off to offer no free apps at all, and simply stick with the public apology, fix the problem, show how they’ll prevent it in the future, and move on. The free apps was just a completely off-track, insulting statement. It sent a message that RIM wasn’t concerned with the effects of the outage, and was more interested in simply pacifying people with something that in the end really didn’t cost them anything. It sent a message that RIM doesn’t get how businesses operate any more. It sent a message that a business professional’s downtime can be pacified by giving him or her a free copy of The SIMS to pass the time.

And so I stick with my original comment, that RIM simply doesn’t get it.

But what about your business? How do you respond to your clients and customers when your own services fail to meet expectations? How do you value your customer when your mistakes cause an interruption to their work? Do you see it as a cost of doing business to pacify the customer? Or do you see it as an opportunity to really learn your customers’ needs, and provide solutions that will help them improve in the future?