Patent rites

The air seemed to leave the room during Paul Jacobs' annual keynote address at last week's BREW 2007 conference as the Qualcomm CEO turned his focus to the subject on everyone's minds: his company's ongoing patent infringement battle with semiconductor supplier Broadcom and the resulting International Trade Commission decision to ban import of 3G handsets employing Qualcomm chips ruled to violate Broadcom patents. "We think the ITC's decision and remedy are unreasonable and wrong," a visibly tense Jacobs said. "We will immediately seek an emergency stay, and ask the president to veto the ITC decision. But these actions have not distracted us from our focus--we will continue to persevere and execute on our vision."

Hours later, Qualcomm's vision seemed to grow blurrier when the ITC denied its stay request, proclaiming in an eight-page ruling issued Thursday that the chipmaker failed to meet a "four-prong test" applied by courts to determine whether to grant preliminary injunctions. (And if you've ever undergone the four-prong test, you know just how painful it can be.) Industry association CTIA is already imploring President Bush to step in against the ITC decision, while Qualcomm will likely also seek intervention from the U.S. Court of Appeals.

But it seems Jacobs knew exactly what he was talking about after all. Reports out of Sprint suggest the operator is already implementing a Qualcomm software patch as a workaround against the ban, with none of its upcoming handset launches negatively impacted by the ITC's actions. In other words, life goes on. You can't be surprised by this development--some pundits were ready to declare the ITC's decision tantamount to outlawing innovation across the U.S. wireless space, but if anything, Qualcomm's software fix suggests that the industry simply moves too fast for the government to play catch-up.

Regardless of which side of the Qualcomm/Broadcom debate you support, the real problem lies with a U.S. Patent Office and Trademark Office that thrives on patent quantity, not quality. Since 1991, the PTO has generated all of its funding via patent and trademark processing fees--no wonder the agency has issued over seven million patents since March 2006 alone. A PTO concentrating on improved, clearer-drawn patents issued in more limited numbers would create intellectual properties far less susceptible to the kinds of costly, convoluted court battles that inevitably result when an innovation's origins and intentions are cloudy. When patent cases go to trial, the only clear winners are the lawyers--whoever patented the concept of billable hours was the most prescient thinker of them all. - Jason