You know, the more I read these types of stories on k5 and /., the more I ask myself if patents are really the problem.
Patents are designed to protect intellectual property, and as such, have little to no real mechanism in place to define the relative difficulty of discovering that 'invention'. What may be considered hard for a programmer to discover may be next to impossible for a marketing drone. Likewise, what may seem simplistic to a chemist may seem astoundingly difficult to said programmer. The difficulty in discovering an invention isn't something that needs to be legislated.
And, an additional level of protection is provided to the patent applicant: if something was "so easy" to discover, then why didn't you patent it?
Now, I realize that the 'why didn't you patent it?' argument has flaws, and that the prior art process isn't always as thorough as it needs to be. However, that's not what this story is about. This story is about whether something considered as simple as "[...] having an idea" should grant you a "[...] natural right to a monopoly."
Should the fact that you had an idea mean that you should be able to patent it? Yes. If what you thought of isn't obvious, isn't patented already, and isn't duplicated by a work of prior art, then you should have the sole and exclusive rights to patent that idea. Additionally, you should be granted the rights to do whatever you want with that idea -- develop it into a product and market the hell out of it on one end of the spectrum, and give it away for free on the other. It's your idea and no one else's.
I think that Mr. Probert says it best:
"[T]he patent system has never differentiated between inventions on the basis of how much the underlying research cost. It doesn't even distinguish between those inventions that are truly valuable and ground-breaking, and those that are [comparatively] trivial and insignificant. As the law stands, we would not be able to do so even if we wanted to. Only if an invention is known or obvious can we raise a legal objection."
The emphasis is mine, but the point is his: patent law can't differentiate between hard and easy inventions, just on those that existed previously and those that are new and valid.
The issue, then, lies with the abuse of patents, and the process of defending the gaps in the prior art research. Once someone has been granted a patent, they frequently use that patent as a legal baseball bat to beat down competition that they would normally be unable to defeat. The ensuing lawsuits to defend an example of prior art and to fend off a claimant's lawyers is usually enough to put most small start-ups out of business. That is what I think most people have a problem with; not with the patents themselves, but the use of patents as a legal weapon.
Whose fault is that? Is it the fault of the patent office, for doing its job? Or, is it the fault of the courts for having untimely and costly methods for disputing patent claims? Maybe it's the fault of companies that use patents as weapons, and neither the legal systems' or the patent offices'.
But, what I think has been drowned out in all of the clamor to reform patent law is that the patent offices of the world were designed to do one thing: protect small people without the legal, technical or marketing resources of larger corporations from being crushed under the wheels of those same corporations. Patents were designed to legally defend people's rights to their ideas from more organized and wealthy groups.
Personally, I think that the real issue lies with the legal system, and its inability to promptly and affordably provide recourse to those wronged by either incorrectly issued patents - those where prior art exists - or those wronged by larger companies who threaten to sue patent holders into selling the rights to patents.
But, I think that's a different argument for a different post...