In the Constitution, America's Founders promoted a culture of innovation by granting inventors, for a limited time, "the exclusive right" to their discoveries. Patents today last 14 to 20 years, enough time for companies to market unique products and recoup the costs of research and development.
The number of patent lawsuits in the United States has risen around 25 percent in the past decade. In the fiercely competitive world of smartphones and tablet computers, suits have reached warlike proportions. A single smartphone might involve tens of thousands of patent claims, and the makers of these gadgets and their software-including Google, Apple, Samsung, HTC, Microsoft, and others-are busy suing and countersuing one another in multiple countries. The losers of patent cases may have to pay up or halt sales of a product altogether. Apple succeeded in blocking sales of Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet in Germany in August because it looked too much like an iPad. (Apple is seeking to block Samsung devices in the United States as well.) VIA Technologies, a chipset maker, has filed suit to ban iPad and iPhone sales in the United States.
Some companies seem to be using patent suits not just to defend their products but to go on the offense against competitors, aiming to handicap rivals in a race to sell the hottest gadgets. Some disputes involve seemingly trivial infringements: Apple recently nailed HTC over a system that automatically recognizes phone numbers in emails. That and a data transmission patent infringement could translate into a ban on all HTC Android phone sales in the United States, depending on the outcome of a trade agency review.
"The whole idea in the smartphone business now is to puff yourself up in a way that wards off lawsuits," Dennis Crouch, a patent law professor from the University of Missouri, told a Fortune reporter. Technology companies have taken to buying up their competitors just to get the patents they own: In July a group of companies bought over 6,000 patents and applications from the bankrupt Nortel for $4.5 billion, the biggest patent auction in history. Google, claiming its competitors were cooperating to "strangle" its Android mobile software, responded in August by purchasing Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion, gaining 17,000 patents.
The new patent law signed by President Obama in September could reduce the number of infringement disputes, but some think it will harm small-scale inventors. Companies could avoid the risk of suing one another into oblivion by simple cooperation, as Crouch suggests: They could license their technology to one another.
Tracking technology is testing interpretations of the Fourth Amendment's protection against "unreasonable searches." The Wall Street Journal reported the FBI and other federal and local authorities are using secretive devices known generically as "stingrays" to track suspects. The devices mimic a cell phone tower, tricking a phone or mobile broadband card to connect and send information about its location. Legal experts say it's unclear whether locating a suspect in his home with such technology should require a search warrant.