Patents: more harm than good

When I was in Prague two years ago, I met a bloke from Bristol (UK) that very convincingly explained how patents as a concept, are stupid. Because alcohol was involved, I can’t recall his actual argument, but it has since made me question: do you really need a patent to protect your business idea?

Narendra Rocherolle, an experienced entrepreneur, has written a good little article explaining when you should, and shouldn’t, spend money to protect your IP. Racherolle offers a good analysis, but I am going to extend it by stating that a patent can be dangerous for your business, and not just because of the monetary cost. Radar Networks is my case-study – a stealth-mode “Semantic web” company, that has received a lot of press lately because apparently they are doing something big but they are not going to tell us until later this year.

Scenario

Radar is apparently building a next-generation internet business, that will pioneer the semantic web. Along with Freebase, which will also launch later this year, there has been a lot of discussion of what these companies are actually doing. It should be noted that both companies are in secret “hush hush” mode – generating just enough hype without telling anyone what they are doing

Mission: Find out what Radar Networks is doing

Tool: US patent office

Means: About half an hour of work

Results

The people behind Radar Networks have filed four patents (maybe more, however one’s enough for this case-study):

1 20060004703 Semantic web portal and platform
2 20040230676 Methods and systems for managing offers and requests in a network
3 20040220893 User interface for managing semantic objects
4 20040158455 Methods and systems for managing entities in a computing device using semantic objects

As I am only trying to prove a point, I only really read the most interesting one which is the “semantic web portal and platform”. Either way, I skimmed the others and I found them all a little unusual, because they were very readable. Most patent applications I have read are full of jargon, explaining their claim in a very convoluted way. Not only are these patents an easy ready, but I found it hard to work out where the “novel” idea was being presented – as in, I can’t see why these patents would be granted. But more importantly, the CEO of Radar has very easily just given away his business model – he certainly hasn’t held back.

So what’s Radar Networks doing? It looks like a collaboration package primarily around e-mail but also makes heavy usage of blog and wiki technology. In another post I might explain this, but take my word that the semantic web will be built by humans and not technology (at least initially). Radar obviously holds the same opinion, and so is likely offering these tools to capture data. They will analyse your e-mails for example, so that you can do all kinds of crazy things – like who you e-mail the most, and which of those people live within 5 kilometres of you. Semantic technologies are about creating links to other information, so they are providing a means to show you links between different type of information. With e-mail, I imagine it will do something like Zoe.

The technology allows you to create your own “Metaweb” – initially on their servers, but later on your own – which I suppose acts like some knowledge intranet for all your communications, but as you use them it captures the information using semantic web technologies (RDF, OWL, etc).

The main revenue will come from selling premium services and features to enterprises, and to sell the entire backend to enterprises that want to run their own nodes in the network or to run it in-house or for their private communities.

They are going to start by providing the “most powerful hosted blogging and wiki service” on their platform, as well as a portal for their community of users. They will provide semantic blogging, website and wiki services to individuals, groups, communities and organisations.

They describe themselves as the semantic equivalent of the Wikipedia. And they even say they might acquire a company called “Everything2” – which obviously has influenced their design, just looking at the terminology both share. Users will get a basic blog and wiki for free, without ads. Advanced features start from $9.95/month.

They claim their main competitors are SixApart (Typepad and Moveable Type), Google (Blogger), Userland, and LiveJournal.

Other things they are going to do:

  • “create a Internet Explorer toolbar plug-in that is designed to replace both the browser’s regular address bar (for typing in URLs) and things like the Google toolbar”
  • They will have phases of releasing their product
    • “Phase 1 we will create a Web-based Metaweb Portal running on the Radar Platform. The portal will be designed to become the ‘Hub of the Semantic Web.’”
    • “In Phase 2 we will provide a free, low-end, open-source Metaweb Server, that enables anyone to host their own Metawebs on their own machine.”
    • “In Phase 3 we will sell a commercial Metaweb Server that enables any group or enterprise to run their own industrial-strength Metaweb service on the network.”
  • They describe the entire navigational menu. Like, there is going to be a “what’s new” button and “Ads (like on Google, along the side)”.

They basically want you to live on their servers, doing all your to-do lists, e-mailing, blogging, classified advertising, and let you cook your breakfast if the technology permits. And as you are quietly working away storing your life, they are creating tuples out of your data – so that a few years down the track they have the gazillion megabyte-sized database that will form the backbone of the semantic web.

Conclusion

By writing this, I am not trying to make a mockery out of Applied Networks (it’s a good idea if they put a good front-end to it). But if the reason they are being so hush-hush is so they could have a competitive advantage, why bother posting a patent application that quite frankly don’t introduce anything completely novel (capturing information in a certain format using existing collaboration technologies isn’t something ground-breaking), and yet it goes into so much detail that it’s like I know just as much as their investors now.

Patent applications: require lots of time to create; plenty of money to make an application; and in the case of Radar Networks – might just have cost them any competitive advantage they would have (which is secrecy) without anything in return.

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