Pending Patents: Protection or Prevention?

About two years ago, I participated in a design competition for RIM Blackberry. Luckily, my team won second place, but aside from that we learned a good deal about interface/product design and the influence of patents on the world of design in general. In the process of researching and developing our team’s ideas, we ended up looking through dozens of phone patents from many different companies.

Every week, corporations like Apple, Windows, RIM, and other major design players put out dozens of patents. Most of this is under the radar of the general public and the design world (other than those few in the know), thereby taking many design ideas out of general play.  

While I have most certainly expressed my love of Apple and good product design in general, it seems to me that the practice of placing many of these patents is somewhat unfair to the general populace of designers.

While it is understandable that companies would want to take all ideas that they deem potentially valuable and protect them from the use of any other designers, it becomes apparent that this would eventually prevent outside designers (who may have the same or a similar idea) from utilizing and profiting from these ideas because they have already been patented. Many patents that are filed and granted are never even used by companies, even underscoring the unfairness of the situation. There may be many products and ideas out there that are being prevented from entering production because another company has already laid its claim.

While my team did our research for the RIM competition, we came up with a design for a phone that we thought was unique and might be successful, and within the week we found a patent for almost the same idea.

I can’t say that I have any solution to this issue, but it seems that individual designers will have to work on their toes and pursue patents in order to compete with the big dogs out there.