Apple wins, Samsung Loses – and so do the rest of us

I saw in the news that Apple recently won a billion-dollar judgement against Samsung.As a programmer and a designer, I understand that software is a collection of ideas. I also firmly believe that software, as a rule, should not be patented. To do so would have a chilling effect on innovation, as new product designers would have to avoid anything that even looks like something that the competition might have patented. I’m not saying that businesses should not keep secrets – of course they should. But that is an internal security and policy matter.
While a billion-dollar judgement sounds truly awful, it was “more than a billion less than Apple had demanded and a small drop for Samsung in the grand scheme of things”, according to the EFF. Samsung will appeal. And they will probably have the judgment reduced or reversed – and this will go on for years.
  • Patents are for mechanisms and devices – not ideas. There are a lot of things that are patented that should not be. Apple patented the “slide-to-unlock” mechanism… while conveniently forgetting that it has been used to secure garden shed doors for centuries. Fortunately a UK court saw sense and declared the patent obvious and therefore invalid, but US courts are not always so sensible.
  • Google was so worried about Patent wars that they purchased Motorola for a cool $12.5Billion.
  • Ideas are built on other ideas. Innovation is all about building a better mousetrap – doing things better than the way they were before. But you can’t do that if there are patent trolls lurking about under bridges looking for a similarity that they can use to hold you for ransom.
  • Let’s not forget that this was a battle between an American company and a Korean company, in an American court, with American Jurors. Why are we surprised at the verdict?And the non-technical jurors were asked hundreds of technical questions that they were fundamentally unqualified to answer. I smell shenanigans.
  • Outside the US, however, Apple aren’t so good at getting their way. “On August 24, a South Korean court found that both parties had infringed on each other’s patents, banning the sale of the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, two iPad models and Samsung’s Galaxy S2. The Korean court ordered Apple to pay Samsung $35,000 and Samsung to pay Apple $22,000″, according to CNN (emphasis mine).
  • Steve Jobs used to refer to Google’s Android as a “stolen product”, presumably because Android shared some look-and-feel elements with IOS. One only needs to look back to the “look-and-feel” lawsuits of the 1980s, where Apple was busily suing Microsoft for “stealing” their UI… while conveniently ignoring the fact that both MacOS and Windows were both using ideas “inspired by” (i.e., swiped from) research done at Xerox PARC.
  • A major part of the problem is the patent system; which is overworked and underfunded. As a result, overly broad patents are often granted, and they are not overturned unless challenged in court. this needs to be fixed.The patent system, as it stands, favors the big – those businesses with thousands of patents and cross-licensing agreements that allow them to use each others’ patents with impunity – and gives them the leverage to drive small players from the field. This can’t be good for business.
  • One of the criteria for granting a patent is that it should be non-obvious. One of the design elements that Apple claims that Samsung “stole” was “pinch-to-zoom”. Put a tablet in the hands of a three-year-old – they will instinctively pinch the screen when they want to zoom. Looks pretty obvious to me…
  • Innovation always breeds imitation. But Apple have always been trigger-happy with it came to litigation. Innovation meant staying out in front, not “lawyering up” at every opportunity – in the past they have tried to assert that they own everything that begins with “i-” or end with “-Pod”.

I close with a quote that says it better than I ever could:

“If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today”Bill Gates, 1991
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