Mobile // Mobile Devices
Commentary
8/30/2012
10:24 PM
Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
Commentary
Connect Directly
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Apple Worked A Broken Patent System

Apple used a dysfunctional U.S. patent system to gain excessive control over technologies it did not invent. If you value innovation, don't cheer Samsung's punishment.

Samsung too closely copied some elements of the Apple iPhone, and for that it should be hung up in the public square. But Samsung should be hung by its thumbs, at worst, not its neck.

Copying in some measure is all around us. It is continuously present in many parts of a free enterprise system and in some ways is a yardstick to the health of that system. I often see small, muscular-looking cars with lines similar to the BMW 300 series, but they have Swedish or Japanese nameplates on them. Watching what sells is a basic premise of anyone engaged in a competitive race. Matching a competitor under your own brand is a time-honored practice.

What a patent and legal system should aim to prevent is theft by copying, such as stealing the technology of a competitor's product, or creating such a conscious, copycat duplication that one product can be confused with another, thus letting the profits of an originator be taken by an imitator. Samsung did not do this.

Samsung's icon layout on its application screen looks similar to Apple's home screen, but beyond that, the jury's verdict in the Apple vs. Samsung case is a muddle, a confusion of design patents put in the same category as utility patents, and the verdict for infringing design looks as punitive as one for stealing technology.

[ Take a look at Samsung's newest smartphones. See Samsung Galaxy Note 2, Windows 8 Smartphones: First Impressions. ]

That shouldn't have been the case. Utility patents are protection for a unique invention, a kind of monopoly granted for 20 years after an examiner determines that no such inventions existed previously or can be found in what's known as prior art.

Design patents are generally agreed to be more subjective. They're good for 14 years, and spring from an 1891 court case that found one silverware manufacturer had copied the pattern of another.

If the "ordinary observer" can detect "substantial similarity" in one silverware pattern versus another, the original's design has been infringed, ruled the Supreme Court. And that's still the standard used in a design patent case involving two sophisticated, multi-layered electronic devices today.

Designs are established through the black and white drawings of exterior ornamentation submitted with the patent claim. In this trial, four Apple design patents were the central issue. Jurors' comments to the press after the trial indicate they were crucial in determining the outcome.

Until now, design patents have tended to play a much smaller role in computing and consumer electronics. For example, of the 6,242 patent examiners in the U.S. Patent Office, 99 of them are design examiners. The rest are utility patent examiners.

Yet, as computers shrink to handheld size, the role of design patents gets magnified. In smartphone design the evolving functional elements, such as the size of the touchscreen, are closely tied into the overall design. Apple didn't invent the capacitive resistance touchscreen, where the electrical field of a human finger makes a connection on the conducting surface of a piece of glass. But its core design patent on the iPhone covers a large, rectangular screen on a handheld device with rounded corners, much as you would now expect a touchscreen to be implemented. There are other elements, but the screen-centric design figures heavily into the iPhone's and iPad's respective design patents.

Apple has used a dysfunctional U.S. patent system--too many patents granted without enough understanding of the state of the art--to prosecute this case.

One of Apple's utility or technology patents covered snapback, a user interface feature that has been taught in computer graphics courses for 10 years, according to testimony at the trial. Either the examiner who approved the patent was not aware of that, or he judged Apple's application of snapback on a phone screen to be a first-ever invention. Whichever way it went, the existence of prior art should have prevented this patent from being issued.

When it comes to the smartphone, Apple's design patents come too close for comfort to giving Apple control of underlying technologies it did not invent, simply because it has asserted ownership of the design. The iPhone and iPad were brilliant design packages, and Apple deserves all the profits it has gained from them.

But the emergence of capacitive resistance screens would sooner or later have allowed many companies to eliminate keypads and produce devices with screen-centric designs. In many cases, they would have been following Apple's lead--let's say copying a good idea in their own way. And the result would be a vigorous, competitive economy and consumer choice.

A more demanding patent system with fewer patents issued would still have left Apple with the leadership position in the market and the respect of consumers who like its products. But it would have been obligated to continue to innovate instead of using patent law to slow or stifle competitors.

Previous
1 of 2
Next
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Page 1 / 6   >   >>
RandomViewer
50%
50%
RandomViewer,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/8/2012 | 9:40:03 PM
re: Apple Worked A Broken Patent System
You have my support :)))
RandomViewer
50%
50%
RandomViewer,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/8/2012 | 9:34:04 PM
re: Apple Worked A Broken Patent System
I am sorry to say this but I completely agree with you @SubjectiveMind. :(
Anyone who ever took a lecture in modern project management etc. knows that we all are part of a greater system - which by the fact we created, and simply need to assume our roles. Those people like Jobs, Gates etc. which we might despise or find controversial, knew that. But still talking about company/human ethics is VERY important. How else can our culture counter that high competing market of ours. :)
RandomViewer
50%
50%
RandomViewer,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/8/2012 | 9:20:36 PM
re: Apple Worked A Broken Patent System
Are you a freedom fighter? You know what happens with those - they die & the world stays the same. Besides this is simply human nature to take out smaller fish build one's greatness on other's ideas. We all do this at the office, home (in different extent of course).
This simply like talking about politics.. :)
We cannot eliminate shadow systems or bad conduct. We need to adopt to it and develop techniques of keeping the important factors on top ex. project efficiency.

A question: Do you think that all the technological development would be achieved if not for "shark" egoistic unfair competition????
Finally, it's actually the elements of globalization - cooperation between companies, that slow us down. :) That's an awesome irony!!!
RandomViewer
50%
50%
RandomViewer,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/8/2012 | 9:06:26 PM
re: Apple Worked A Broken Patent System
And yet you most probably bought an iPhone yourself? Am I right?
2nd. Let's maybe focus on the current patent cases because if we would trace all modern product development we would end with quite disturbing conclusions. hehe :))
See patent law is a funny thing and it has simply not changed throughout all those years. The only thing unchanged/irreversible, are the court rulings.
ANON1237925156805
50%
50%
ANON1237925156805,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/6/2012 | 8:34:04 PM
re: Apple Worked A Broken Patent System
Apple followed the law. The law seriously needs to change.

On the other hand, this weekend I was visiting family in CA whom I don't often see. Several times I noticed that family members had iPhone 3GSes only to discover that they were Samsungs. I've never mistaken an EVO or a Droid for an iPhone so there is something there.

The question becomes this: In a universe where design is so key do there not need to be some boundaries? How do we find them?
NiteOwl_OvO
50%
50%
NiteOwl_OvO,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/6/2012 | 5:49:15 PM
re: Apple Worked A Broken Patent System
Take a good look at Xerox's ViewPoint interface to see what Apple and Microsoft copied. Apple licensed the mouse from SRI not Xerox. Apple and Xerox didn't invent the windowed interface or overlapping windows. SRI did, although it was text-based.
MyW0r1d
50%
50%
MyW0r1d,
User Rank: Strategist
9/5/2012 | 9:51:36 PM
re: Apple Worked A Broken Patent System
Apple displayed what the university failed perhaps to make clear, filing a patent is one thing defending it is another exactly because of the vagueness. If you file, make sure you have the funds to defend against the Apple's whose interests are to ensure competitive advantage or eliminate competition with all means necessary. Not having the funds for a sustained legal battle could have severe consequences regardless of what is right or wrong. Why did they choose Samsung instead of all Android devices? Because it was a one-on-one not a one against many with the relative consolidated legal funding.
MyW0r1d
50%
50%
MyW0r1d,
User Rank: Strategist
9/5/2012 | 9:46:23 PM
re: Apple Worked A Broken Patent System
WorkplaceRelations 101, rule one don't "discuss" with the boss, listen, rule two when in doubt follow rule one, rule three, if you have the bosses' boss in your back pocket you may an opportunity.
Corgi
50%
50%
Corgi,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/4/2012 | 11:41:09 PM
re: Apple Worked A Broken Patent System
I agree with this whole-heartedly. I don't see Apple taking LG, Motorola, Nokia, or any other smartphone manufacturer to trial G-only Samsung, and this is because Samsung blatantly copied the design of the iPhone in many ways (in hardware as well as software). I will also concur that the patent system is broken; however, this isn't a good example of how it is broken.
SubjectiveMind
50%
50%
SubjectiveMind,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/4/2012 | 5:39:21 PM
re: Apple Worked A Broken Patent System
First of all let me just state that I am not defending Samsung. Second of all they are Korean you pathetic,racist, nitwit! Oh wait, let me guess...they all look the same to you right?

Oh and BTW... VOTE OBAMA!
Page 1 / 6   >   >>
Building A Mobile Business Mindset
Building A Mobile Business Mindset
Among 688 respondents, 46% have deployed mobile apps, with an additional 24% planning to in the next year. Soon all apps will look like mobile apps and it's past time for those with no plans to get cracking.
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
InformationWeek Tech Digest, Dec. 9, 2014
Apps will make or break the tablet as a work device, but don't shortchange critical factors related to hardware, security, peripherals, and integration.
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
InformationWeek Radio
Archived InformationWeek Radio
Join us for a roundup of the top stories on InformationWeek.com for the week of December 7, 2014. Be here for the show and for the incredible Friday Afternoon Conversation that runs beside the program!
Sponsored Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.