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 Visual.ly 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.
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.