You must have heard of the recent patent infringement case between Apple and Samsung, which Apple eventually won. From the recent developments related to patent cases it appears that, the patents are used by the inventor or assignee to sue their competitors, rather than for new inventions.
Being from a software background, I have distanced myself from this area, especially because of the jargon used and the process involved. However, now its much easier to learn about it, thanks to StackExchange (a community-driven Q&A site) which has come up with a site for patents – http://patents.stackexchange.com in association with US Patent and Trademark Office.
Go and check out about the patents and the prior art.