Intellectual Property, Technology, and the Law

The Wacky Wizard of Woz

“You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking.” – The Wizard of Oz

I have to admit, I got a chuckle out of the latest comments from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who was at the Embedded System Conference here in the Silicon Valley:

“A lot of patents are pretty much not worth that much”

Um, well, yeah. Not exactly groundbreaking news. I know some people who believe only 5-10% of their patent portfolio will ever be useful in any manner. But it’s that 5-10% that keeps companies afloat.

“In other words, any fifth-grader could come up with the same approach.”

Well, ok. My son’s in the 5th grade and I am pretty sure he has come up with several novel and nonobvious ways to annoy his sister.

“That patent-troll thing… The other night Paul Allen was speaking at the Computer History Museum and I had four tickets. And I decided at the last minute not to go, because I remembered he’s suing all these companies like Apple and Google – but he’s not suing Microsoft – because he bought all these patents.”

“Well heck, Paul Allen should be out there investing in companies that are doing something, making products, actually making a new future for the world, and not ‘I’m … going to sue people, and get in bed with the lawyers to make my money.’ That’s not the right way. So I had dinner with friends rather than go see Paul Allen.”

Aside from the fact that he instead decided to go Marie Callendar’s (apparently he’s a huge pea soup aficionado… more on his quirkiness later), this all occurs to him at the “last minute”? I can just imagine him tying his bowtie at his home and then saying “wait a minute, I forgot, I hate that guy! It’s pea soup time, baby!”

But let’s get to his salient point here. He thinks Paul Allen should invest in companies who “make products” and innovate, like Apple and Google. Ok, got it. But wait:

“It’s not really special what they come up with. But since you were a rich company, you can investigate [a technique] years before it’s going to be affordable for products. You could investigate it … and patent it, patent it, patent it.”

Now I’m confused. Or more likely, Woz woke up on the wrong side of the iBed that morning. By the way, I should note that there is absolutely nothing wrong with developing something and then waiting to make it affordable.  Apple did the same thing with the Newton, the predecessor in spirit to the iPad. If people had to wait until they think a technology is going to be affordable, where would we be as a society? Where would be the incentive to innovate? Whatever, Woz.

It gets better:

“The Apple II, okay? I put it together, and I’m going to put characters on my TV set, and there’s this trick called a character generator. Okay, that’ll help me figure out which dots to put out at the right time to pop up on an American TV. And then we find out RCA has a patent on a character generator for any raster-scanned setup, and they patented it at a time when nobody could have envisioned it really being used or anything … and they got five bucks for each Apple II, based on this little idea that’s not even an idea. You know: store the bits, store the bits, then pop in a character on your TV. I don’t know any other way you could do it – anybody would have come up with that with the same approach.” (emphasis mine)

So… what he calls a “trick” (which Dictionary.com defines as “a crafty or underhanded device, maneuver, stratagem, or the like”), is suddenly “not even an idea”? Uh, what? And his supposition that “anybody could have come up with that with the same approach” is known by another name — competition. And it’s not like Apple wasn’t filing patents — with Wozniak the named inventor — around the time the Apple II was being first developed and sold. Check them out, here, here, here and here.

I think all in all, my favorite thing about Woz’s diatribe is this little gem from not too long ago, where he says:

“I am not a lawyer, and we’re getting into the legal category, not just the technology category, but I think this lawsuit represents the idea that, you know, hey, patents, individual inventors, they don’t have the funds to go up against big companies. So [Paul Allen’s] sort of representing some original investors, and I am not at all against the idea of patent trolls, because I’ve got friends who just got forced into bankruptcy by bigger people who have more money and can have a lawsuit against them…”

I give up.

I suppose it is a quixotic endeavor to understand a man who enjoys Segway Polo (yes, it exists), is a full-blown Tetris freak (who annoyed Nintendo Power so much by submitting so many high scores that they banned him, so he started submitted his name backwards as “Evets Kainzow”), dated Kathy Griffin, and did the absolute worst earthworm I have ever seen (it’s at the 0:09 mark).

To be fair, he’s got a number of philanthropic ventures, including the Children’s Discovery Museum (on Woz Way, of course), where my son honed his sister annoyance techniques over the years.


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