Is Patent Protection A Fine Line Or A Wide Gap?

It’s worth questioning the limits and boundaries of patent protection, because copying good ideas seems to be a universal business practice. After all, how are you supposed to beat out the competition if you can’t even implement their good ideas for yourself? You expect them to do the same when you put forward an innovation, so it makes sense from a business standpoint. But when is using someone else’s idea actually stealing? Where is the line drawn in the sand?

According to Greg Reilly of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law, United States patent laws don’t allow you to outright use someone else’s design. Instead, the laws are written to basically ensure you “design around” it.

“It’s an incredibly fine line,” Reilly said. “You can be infringing on a patent without even knowing.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter if you meant to use someone else’s trade secrets. If you don’t know what the blueprint is but inadvertently copy it anyway after trying to replicate the patent’s success in your own product, then you’re just as guilty of theft. This is especially true in the automotive industry because new vehicles developed by different manufacturers are more or less put on the market with features so similar they might as well be the same.

Versata Software Inc. is a software developer working out of Texas. Years ago the company supplied Ford with programs for a new line of vehicles, but eventually Ford ended the contract. Versata sued Ford in 2015 for “somehow” developing a program that perfectly mirrored the functionality of the program it had once supplied to the auto giant. But even in 2019 the case continues to drag and drag, with an expected trial date sometime in November (assuming a settlement isn’t reached, which it almost certainly won’t be).

Versata isn’t the only one after Ford for stealing trade secrets. Three Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professors launched a lawsuit just this year after Ford allegedly ripped off their dual-port and direct-injection tech in an upcoming line of vehicles.

One of the biggest problems for companies — especially small ones — is that it’s nearly impossible to know whether or not one of your new technologies was inadvertently pilfered from another company. It may seem absurd, but think about it: not only is the population exploding, and the number of companies along with it, but the wealth of human knowledge is growing exponentially year by year. That’s in part because many researchers and scientists are working on the same stuff.

If we don’t change our patent laws soon, or at least help companies find a way to know whether or not they’ve committed theft prior to an expensive or long-lasting lawsuit, then resources will continue to be squandered when they could have instead been used to continue research and make life better for all of us. Shouldn’t knowledge be free?

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