At first blush, the recent dispute between Comcast and TiVo may seem to be nothing more than a feud between two competitors vying for a competitive edge in the free market. Closer inspection, however, reveals this dispute to be anything but a free-market clash – and the implications for U.S. consumers, inventors and even the future of the rule of law are at stake.
Americans can be forgiven for not paying much attention to the litigation between Comcast, the world’s largest (by revenue) broadcasting and cable television company, and TiVo, a technology company that licenses its intellectual property to companies like Comcast. But given the nature of the litigation and the possible effects on the future of patent protections, and the United States’ ability to maintain its global dominance as the leader in producing, manufacturing and protecting inventions, it is worth paying close attention.
TiVo, which recently joined with Rovi, invents innovative digital technology that is widely used – and enjoyed – by Americans. TiVo licenses much of its technology to cable companies and other broadcasting companies, which, in turn, are able to offer more enhanced and desirable products to their customers. Comcast’s services, in the absence of TiVo’s cutting-edge technology, would be a much less user-friendly TV-viewing experience. Take, for example, just a few of TiVo’s technological advances, such as the customized channel guide and the ability for customers to remotely access and program their DVRs. Forgot to set your set-top box to record your favorite show before you left for work? Thanks to TiVo technology, you can program it from your smartphone.
Strip out the TiVo technology, and Comcast’s customers would be watching and recording cable television the way they did back in the 1990s. Comcast, which trademarked its slogan, “The future of awesome,” would be decidedly less futuristic and so much less awesome without the embedded TiVo technology.
Which brings us to the ongoing dispute between the two companies.
Comcast, in an apparent effort to reduce costs, has decided it will no longer renew its license agreement with TiVo. But – and here is why TiVo finds itself in the midst of expensive intellectual property litigation with Comcast – Comcast has also decided to flout the laws and simply continue making, using, selling and leasing products that were built upon TiVo’s patented inventions.
Comcast’s flagrant violation of patent law is outrageously unfair – and, if unchecked, sets up a dangerous precedent that companies can steal other companies’ intellectual property. Patent violations are simply large-scale theft by another name, and must be treated as such.
Patents have a long history in the United States and our nation’s founders saw fit to include the protection of intellectual property in the Constitution. Article I, section 8, of the Constitution spells out that “Congress shall have power … to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
And it was not merely the newly formed federal government that sought so ardently to protect intellectual property. Many of the states had already enacted, or would shortly thereafter enact, their own protections of copyrights and patents. Rhode Island, for example, offered that “there [is] no property more peculiarly a man’s own than that which is produced by the labour of his mind.” It is difficult to come up with a better or more concise reason why intellectual property is so deserving of protection – or why patents must be zealously safeguarded.
American inventors, whether individuals working alone to breathe life into their own idea, or teams of inventors working collaboratively for massive technology companies, share several attributes: They never tire of the pursuit of perfection; they are never satisfied with the status quo; and they are willing to pour their creativity and energy into their concepts. That process of shepherding a good idea from an intellectual concept to a patent-worthy product is painstakingly laborious. The genius of our patent system is that it recognizes – and, more importantly, respects and rewards – that laborious process.
Patents are more than certificates of ownership; they are inducements for inventors to give their time and energy for the risky enterprise of charting a new course. Patents are the single most important foundation undergirding the U.S. economy of inventions and spirit of entrepreneurship – and they are the reason most inventors are willing to undertake the hard work of creating.
Comcast’s willful disregard of our patent protections has consequences that will be felt far beyond the cable and broadcast television realm. Let’s hope that in the TiVo v. Comcast litigation, the International Trade Commission and U.S. courts continue to respect our necessary patent protections.
Jenny Beth Martin is the co-founder and president of Tea Party Patriots.
Editor’s note: This opinion piece involves allegations of fact that are in dispute and that are the subject of pending litigation before the International Trade Commission. Comcast has denied them in its filings in that case.
Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.