Infographic: Sweet Jesus, The Patent War Has Gotten Crazy

Google. Yahoo. Apple. Motorola. Everyone in tech is suing everyone else!

It seems like we hear about patent lawsuits and settlements every day, but it wasn’t until right now that I understood just how bad things were. This infographic by shows us that everyone really is suing everyone in what looks like a game of Axis and Allies that has gone on for two weeks too long.

Click to zoom.

The sheer visual mass of this image will likely give you pause—which I think is entirely the point—but let me help you decode it. The companies are arranged in a circle. A simple arrow points from each company to the company they’re suing. And in many cases, these arrows are firing back and forth at one another in what reminds me of a worst case scenario Cold War map in which half the earth is obliterated into space dust.

Around the circle’s circumference, however, a slightly different game is being played. These are alliances, handshakes and licensing agreements that show patents that are being openly shared between companies. Did you know Google is essentially borrowing 17,000 patents from Motorola? Heck, did you know Motorola had 17,000 patents to borrow in the first place?

In the digital age, patents have gone incredibly granular (yet often, still incredibly liberal in their actual, implementable scope), protecting so many ideas that it’s impossible for any market competition to exist without stepping on at least a few toes. (Should anyone really be able to patent a pinch-to-zoom interface?) Furthermore, patents can last anywhere from 14 to 20 years. This sort of timeframe made sense in a market that generated distinctive products at a slower rate. But we have no idea what our computers and phones will look like five years from now, let alone two decades from now. A patent that once lasted a couple of product cycles now covers a baker’s dozen.

So ready the nukes, I guess. If companies can’t stop lawsuits from coming in, they might as well fire off a few of their own to cover the damages.

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  • Schroding79

    As far as I can see, this proves that patenting works because there is far more licensing happening than litigation. If you want to use someone else's invention you should pay for it (via a license) and you should get sued when you copy/use/abuse someone else's invention.

    Furthermore, 'free' intellectual property is oxy-moronic. If your house was open to anyone and everyone to live in or modify is it really your property?

    Also, not everyone is driven by altruism, if you prevent or reduce financial rewards for inventors I argue there will be less innovation.

  • ToNYC

    The only thing worse than rewarding by our legal system publication of new Art; is not rewarding and encouraging the free publication of intellectual property and hiding all traces of a individual's art.

  • Tico

    And that info graphic doesn't include the patent infringement claims Technicolor has against Apple, Samsung, LG, et al.

  • anon11

    This is why intellectual property is nonsense. Read "against intellectual monopoly" to get a very detailed and convincing account on why of why as a civilization patents are doing nothing to move us forward.
    They are organized theft by rent-seekers.

  • CQ

    IMO patents should only be able to be hold up if the information is generally available and if they are in use. 
    Companies Stockpiling patents so they can block other companies is $hit

  • iamnoskcaj

    This is repulsive.  Truly a sign that Intellectual Property law has lost it's marbles.  We need to put an end to this madness, quickly.  In 20 years we could get to a point where no new developers, entrepreneurs, inventors can create new technology (hardware, software or otherwise) without getting their ass sued into oblivion.  So many of these patents (particularly software patents) are ridiculously bogus.  Go read a few and see what I mean.  

  • Edward

    Way scary for small entrepreneurs.   AND you didn't even include exMicrosoft CTO's firm Intellectual Ventures who own 20,000 patents and are not very nice about sharing....

  • Schroding79

    Ellie, why is it ridiculous to have many patents for the same "concepts"? 
    Concepts aren't patented, inventions are. So naturally there can be many inventions with the same concept. Also, it is possible to patent multiple 'inventions' in the same patent (provided they share a certain link) under patent laws of many countries.

    If patented separately, each invention must be novel and non-obvious over previous ones. Can you provide an example of what you mean? I'm curious as to what might be considered to be the same concept and therefore something that you don't think should be patentable.

    Moreover, this applies to any invention, not just software and I would have thought it has been this way from well before 1990.

  • Ellie K

    Edward, you're so correct. I don't know if IV is unique or if there are others who are similar. VRNG perhaps? I'm not sure about that. I do know that IV is a terrifying force to be reckoned with. While it is true that software patent law has become ridiculous e.g. there are many duplicate and triplicate patents for the same "concepts", and worse, I am less troubled by big companies fighting things out. (Not that that is a productive use of money or public legal system resources either!)

    As you said though, for small entrepreneurs with one or two non-software patents to their credit, there is little chance of survival. VC doesn't like to fund hardware or real technology, and IV is ready to buy up patents when possible.

    Patent law in the U.S.A. was not dysfunctional prior to 1990 or so. I wonder what the chronology of events were, that led to the current mess... That chart is dizzying, and is getting more and more complex with each passing day, and IP infringement lawsuit.