A U.S. judge yesterday threw aside a much-anticipated trial between Apple and Google-owned Motorola Mobility over smartphone patents. The decision and a blog comment by the same judge could prove to be a watershed moment for a U.S. patent system that has spiraled out of control.
In his remarkable ruling, U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner stated that there was no point in holding a trial because it was apparent that neither side could show they had been harmed by the other’s patent infringement. He said he was inclined to dismiss the case with prejudice — meaning the parties can’t come back to fight over the same patents — and that he would enter a more formal opinion confirming this next week.
While I, of course, oppose the legal concept of patents—and intellectual property in general—I do applaud this ruling as a step in the right direction in terms of both the legal theory underlying it and the more practical ramifications of reducing the scope of IP. Since Judge Posner is asserting that neither party had harmed the other, he is basically saying that there are limits to patent law. Since this is basically a matter of personal opinion rather than longstanding legal tradition (court have often stretched the limits of patent law rather than limit them), Posner’s decision will likely get some coverage, and hopefully cause people to think more carefully about the whole concept of IP.
Better yet, though, Posner’s decision is in keeping with the spirit of the constitution. The rationale for patent law in the constitution is that it will promote the progress of the arts and sciences. This is a utilitarian argument, not a moral argument. There is no evidence that the founding fathers—or the politicians that adopted the constitution, for that matter—viewed ideas as a form of property, subject to some sort of property laws. Rather, the idea was that by giving artists and inventors limited monopolies, they would be more encouraged to produce new works, ideas, and innovations. Thus, the main purpose of patent law is to encourage the spread of ideas. It is not intended to cause pointless fights between mega-corporations. Posner’s ruling is thus encouraging because it reinforces the utilitarian view espoused in the constitution. The entire purpose of IP laws is to make society wealthier. Mega-corporations paying lawyers to ship boxes of paper to one another does not enrich society.