Clichéd though it may be, I believe it to be completely true.
This week is my first week working on Triple Point Robotics full-time. I quit my secure, well-paying, and generally pretty awesome job to work on this because I really want to see more robotic technology available to the general public. I know how to make it happen technically, but running a company has its own share of problems which I'm rapidly discovering. I'm pretty sure patents are going to be a persistent, huge, and irritating one.
The main issue is that every obvious idea has been patented already. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Regardless of the fact that patents are supposed to be non-obvious to an expert in the field, there are about a thousand patents covering minor - no, let me rephrase that, completely trivial- variations on already obvious ideas. Even the process of being a patent troll has been patented!
Have you ever tried to buy a domain name? It's the same problem in a different guise. It's so cheap to buy a domain name that cyber-squatters have literally coded what amount to dictionary attacks on domain name registrars to purchase every available verb+noun and noun+noun combination in the .COM TLD. Patents, although stupidly expensive for startups, are so cheap for big companies that they patent tens if not hundreds of things each week.
In my previous job, I was called upon to skim the patent landscape for devices related to measuring properties of a borehole. I found a patent on transmitting information wirelessly from down a hole to a device outside the hole. I found another on recording information down the hole on any medium, then removing it and reading the information off it at the top. In other words, you can't measure anything down a hole without violating someone's patent. Arguably, even putting a stick down a hole and looking for the water line violates these patents.
How did anyone conclude that measuring something down a hole was non-obvious? What kind of idiots does the USPTO have working for it that they couldn't guess that the logical ways to get information out of a hole are to transmit it out, or record it down there and bring it up afterwards? Why do we allow this kind of crap to be regarded as intellectual property, let alone intellectual?
The next stage of the problem occurs for slightly non-obvious things, or obvious but technically difficult things. Oh don't worry, they're also all patented already, but there are few if any products available that implement any sufficiently complex patent. Take for example the fairly obvious idea that if you point a camera and projector in the same direction, you can show an image on a whiteboard, annotate it, then record the result. There are at least 80 patents covering this exact same concept - I know because I've read most of them over the last few days.
People have been having this idea since at least 1990 (Xerox has this one for example) so why, 20+ years later, can't I buy a product that does this? There are plenty of "interactive" whiteboards (about 80% of these are essentially a camera-projector system with some form of electronic pen, the rest are hugely expensive giant touch screens), but despite all the patents on the idea of doing this for a "Plain Old Whiteboard" as a form of backup, you just can't buy one. (Amusingly, if you search for "Version Control for Whiteboards" you get our products page :-), and then this hilariously over-engineered protocol for when people should be allowed to erase stuff from a workplace whiteboard.)
So what's a poor entrepreneur to do? I posed this question on Quora and the best answer so far is the most obvious - infringe anyway and deal with the consequences later as a cost of doing business in an archaic intellectual property system. There are other options, ranging from 'give up and go home' through 'try to negotiate a license' or 'modify your product to get around the claims' to 'ignore it and hope they don't sue you before you get big enough to patent a bunch of related crap you can use defensively'. But if everyone is infringing, patenting crap just in case it's useful defensively or offensively, or using lawyers to find ways of worming their way around existing patents, then what on earth is the point in the first place?
Am I just a hopeless libertarian for thinking that a world without any patents whatsoever might just be a better one than one in which patents are just a giant tax on doing business? The standard argument trotted out against this suggestion is that big pharmacuetical companies wouldn't ever spend the money on research, animal trials, human trials, and FDA approval if they couldn't have exclusive rights to the drug design. Sounds reasonable, but why not have a special annex for drugs and ditch software and process patents completely?
That argument however, is one for another day. Today was for ranting about the minefield that is patent law. Thank you, Internet, for indulging me.