Ubuntu’s Shuttleworth: patents misunderstood, misused, outdated

Patents are archaic, misunderstood and of little or no help to the entrepreneur, according to Mark Shuttleworth, who leads the Ubuntu Foundation, which is behind the open source operating system. In an interview with TechCentral, Shuttleworth was asked about the escalating patent battle in the mobile industry and he provided some choice quotes.

He said that while patents are promoted as a way to protect the innovations of small entrepreneurs trying to make something big, they’re being applied to the opposite effect. He said larger companies are using patents to keep new players from coming in and shaking up an established market. That, he said, is also playing itself out in the piling on of Android (s goog), which is the favorite target of a lot of tech companies right now.

“What [patents] do very well is keep the big guys entrenched and the little guys out. For example, it’s very common in established industries for all of the majors to buy up or file as many patents as they can covering a particular area. They know and accept that the other majors are all in the same industry and essentially cross-license each other to keep the peace within that defined market. But they use that arsenal to stop new entrants coming in and disrupting the market. That’s almost the exact opposite of the way people think about the patent system. They think it’s supposed to catalyse disruption and innovation, but in reality it has the opposite effect. What we’re seeing in the mobile space is that game being played out at large because Google is trying to disrupt that cosy ecosystem by entering the market with a product [Android] that is highly disruptive. And it’s disruptive to all of the majors, so what you’re seeing is this cascading series of suits and countersuits.”

He said the patent system is need of reform because it is outdated. He said one of the benefits of the original patent system was that it allowed for the eventual release of trade secrets in exchange for a short-term monopoly. But he said these days, the benefit of releasing those trade secrets at a later date is of smaller value because so much can be reverse-engineered these days. And the benefits to society are also meager because patents are being used to sustain “cartel-like behavior,” especially in the tech industry, he said.

There’s a lot of other interesting snippets in the interview, including talk of Ubuntu’s future on tablets and Shuttleworth’s short position on Apple (s aapl), so check it out. Also, take a look at Nilay Patel’s exhaustive take at the patent system at This Is My Next.