Patent play risks stifling games dev innovation, says TIGA
Surveying developers to find a solution
Last week, UK trade association TIGA announced that it was to survey game developers on the subject of patents, with a view to establishing how the threat of litigation affects UK studios.
At the heart of the discussion is the problem of 'patent trolls' and TIGA is keen to establish how these litigious individuals can harm software innovation.
But that's not the only aspect of the current patent system making life difficult for developers, and TIGA is to poll developer opinion for how best it could agitate for change.
So, to find out what sparked this investigation, we spoke to the association's CEO Dr Richard Wilson, and asked exactly how TIGA will turn the information it gathers into action.
Pocket Gamer: What prompted TIGA to begin investigating the subject of patent law and patent trolling? Was there a specific catalyst?
Richard Wilson: TIGA's mission is to strengthen the games development and digital publishing sector, and so we are continually looking to identify challenges and opportunities for our industry.
There has been a series of high profile legal cases involving alleged patent infringements within the high technology sector: Apple has sued Samsung; Samsung has sued Apple; Ericsson has sued Samsung; Nokia is suing RIM, and so it goes on and on.
Naturally, companies have a right to protect their intellectual property (IP), but there is a danger that an overly aggressive exploitation of IP could prevent businesses from developing existing technologies.
Additionally, high profile patent infringement cases encourage the growth of 'patent trolls' – patent holders who exist solely to commercially exploit patent rights whether by grant of licence or the pursuit of litigation against alleged infringers.
Their mode of attack is commonly to single out a vulnerable business within an industry or a blanket assault on an industry wide basis. This should therefore be a concern for the industry.
Could you tell us more about the survey, the type of information you're hoping to gather, and how it will be put to use?
The TIGA survey is designed to ascertain the extent of the patent troll problem, the degree to which developers and digital publishers are taking out patents, the incidence of patent infringements by developers and digital publishers, and what impact fear of patent infringements is having on business.
TIGA will use the information to ensure that policy makers in the UK in particular, including the Intellectual Property Office, are aware of the important issues arising from the misuse of patents and of patent infringements.
Once you've identified the scale of the problem, how does TIGA hope to pursue change?
TIGA will share the findings of this important survey with the Intellectual Property Office and with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which is the Department with responsibility for the video games industry.
We will discuss what action, if any, is needed and how best to effect change.
Do you believe that the current patent system is creating a potential "innovation gridlock"?
If a multiplicity of businesses hold a variety of small patents then it may become difficult to combine multiple technologies to engineer a new product.
In these circumstances the potential for innovation gridlock could emerge. One of the purposes of the TIGA survey is to assess whether games developers and digital publishers feel that this is an issue.
Is there a specific line to be drawn between legitimately enforcing a patent and trolling?
Absolutely. The idea underpinning patents is to protect innovators and entrepreneurs from the theft of their ideas, particularly before they have brought them to market and to afford them rightful reward for their hard work and investment.
Patent trolls exploit the patent system and often launch speculative legal attacks with little evidence of actual infringement.
Your survey asks whether developers would support shorter, more flexible software patents or agreements that patents only be used for defensive purposes. Do you feel that these are potential solutions to the problems faced by developers?
Video games development is often derivative and incremental in nature. Different companies build on the achievements of others.
It would be damaging to the games industry, to technology businesses in general and to the wider UK economy if misuse of patent rights discouraged businesses either from building on an existing technology or from selling in certain territories.
Equally, it would be damaging to games companies and to the economy and business generally if excessive resources were invested in enforcing patent rights rather than in research and development.
Shorter software patents or the adoption of patents for defensive purposes are two possible reforms. Essentially, we need a patent system which protects entrepreneurs and innovators in the games industry and the wider economy but which limits the potential for abuse.
Thanks to Richard for his time.
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