Super Soakers and Patent Lawsuits

Lonnie Johnson, the inventor of the Super Soaker, has prevailed in a royalty dispute with toy-maker Hasbro. I haven't been following the case, but from what I read in that article, it sounds rather clear-cut. They made an agreement to license his technology and then didn't follow the agreement. He's due some extra royalty payments as a result.

This is great, but on the surface not really worth much more than a passing glance. What makes it interesting to me though, is the discussion on Hacker News about it. This is a case where an inventor of a piece of technology licensed it to others -- in some sense, he's an NPE. Creating a strict definition of patent troll which does not also include guys like Johnson would be difficult. There is a huge grey area, and it becomes more of an "I know it when I see it" kind of thing.

It's not fair to make small inventors build products that they may not have the resources or the inclination to do at a proper scale. Running a business is a very different set of skills than working in a lab, and while some people can do both and enjoy it, there's nothing wrong with only being good at (or having an interest in) one of those. Large companies can and do prey upon small inventors, hoping that they won't have the legal resources to fight back. So in my opinion, there's nothing wrong with selling the intellectual property rights to another entity.

Enter Intellectual Ventures and Lodsys. How is this different? To me, the difference is one of originality of the invention. For something truly original and truly novel, it makes sense to allow a patent and allow the owner of that patent to do whatever they want with it. Including selling it to a firm like Intellectual Ventures. The problem with the Lodsys patents and those of similar modern patent trolls are that they're not original and/or that they're being stretched to cover things that have nothing to do with their original invention.

We need to stop granting obvious patents and we need to stop granting overly broad patents. This is a difficult problem. The patent office cannot be expected to be experts in all fields, many of which require years or even decades of training and experience to reach proficiency. And as technology and the world changes, the language in a ten year old patent that didn't seem overly broad at the time can suddenly cover vast new fields and applications that had nothing to do with the original filing. There is no process to review patents once they're granted other than litigation, the cost of which is prohibitive for most people and small firms.

A bad patent can do much more harm than good by stifling other companies from building things that would make the world a better place. But whatever we do to reform the system, we need to make sure it doesn't discourage or disincent active inventors like Lonnie Johnson, working away in their labs inventing (among many other vastly more important things) great new ways of blasting water at your friends on a 100 degree July day.

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