Patent cash cows: Is the worst to come?

Some of you might remember when, five years ago, British Telecom tried to patent the ubiquitous hyperlink in a bid to close the Internet and, yes, milk the cash cow.

The strategy is fairly simple. Get a patent, either through research or by acquiring companies which possess them, then wait and, when the fruit is ripe, get some lawyers to enforce the law and try and get the cow to cough up the pounds.

Microsoft has been a victim of this in the past and so have a number of other technology companies. The open source movement hasn't been spared from patent-related controversies either.

Billions of dollars have changed hands between defenders and prosecutors with the winners most often the lawyers themselves. This brings us to what is currently happening to Research in Motion and NTP.

Some will say that patents are a necessary evil to sustain the intellectual property system, but examples abound - the RIM/NTP case being the most recent one – to show that the system can be abused at will, given the opportunity.

I have already written previously on Mr Baker's proposals to replace the Intellectual Property rights system and although his proposals were at most interesting in theory, they could not be pragmatically applied to the real world.

We do not know the outcome of the NTP vs RIM lawsuit at the time of writing but it comes with a stark reminder that somewhere in a contract or EULA (End User License Agreement), there should be a clause that limits customers’ exposure to the fallout from a patent dispute.