Donating inventions to multi-billion-dollar companies is not an effective long-term business strategy.
Yesterday, during the WWDC keynote, Apple announced the absorption of primary functions of multiple third-party iOS apps into the OS itself or into Apple's own apps. Numerous tweets scrolled by in my feed mentioning all of the ideas Apple had "stolen." Jason Kottke summed up my thoughts better than I could at that moment:
Among the third-party apps that were largely absorbed was Marco Arment's useful Instapaper, via Apple's new Reading List and Reader functions. While Arment expresses some optimism that there is still room for Instapaper as a deluxe service, the reality is that competing with a zero-setup built-in service that is sure to evolve even further is very difficult.
How was Apple able to just lift Arment's ideas and incorporate them into Lion and iOS5? Arment did not even try to patent them. Arment says he would "never try to use the legal system to prevent others from competing with me, even if I had infinite money and lawyers."
Believe me, I respect a principled stand. Arment is against "software patents" and won't seek one. However, a company with $70B+ in the bank versus a solo developer in Brooklyn (or Westchester County) is just not a fair fight.
It is a tragedy that abuses of the patent system by others seem to be leading actual innovators to not seek protection for themselves. The patent system should efficiently serve someone like Marco Arment. He created something new with economic value. His reward for that innovation will now be cut short because he did not seek protection.
Having a patent does not mean you need to assert it against other small developers. It does mean, however, that you have leverage to obtain some compensation when a giant corporation rides on your work for its shareholders' benefit.
If you develop a great app for iOS, talk to a patent attorney. There are many who would be willing to have a quick discussion with you on the potential costs without even starting the meter. You may decide that the costs of protection outweigh the benefits. That would be a perfectly reasonable decision in many cases. However, if you are building your business or livelihood on app development, there is no shame in protecting that business or livelihood through the patent system.