It’s not surprising that Microsoft — now an entrenched incumbent — has had a change of heart. But Mr. Gates was right in 1991: patents are bad for the software industry. Nothing illustrates that better than the conflict between Verizon and Vonage.
Vonage developed one of the first Internet telephone services and has attracted more than two million customers. But last year, Verizon — one of Vonage’s biggest competitors — sued for patent infringement and won a verdict in its favor in March.
The Gates memo predicted that a large company would “patent some obvious thing,” and that’s exactly what Verizon has done. Two of its patents cover the concept of translating phone numbers into Internet addresses. It is virtually impossible to create a consumer-friendly Internet telephone product without doing that. So if Verizon prevails on appeal, it will probably be able to drive Vonage out of business. Consumers will suffer from fewer choices and higher prices, and future competitors will be reluctant to enter markets dominated by patents.
[…] Only patent lawyers benefit from this kind of arms race. And Microsoft’s own history contradicts Mr. Smith’s claim that patents are essential for technological breakthroughs: Microsoft produced lots of innovative software before it received its first software patent in 1988. As more and more lawsuits rock the industry, we should ask if software patents are stifling innovation. Bill Gates certainly thought so in 1991, even if he won’t admit it today.