Steve Jobs Was A Lawyer's Dream CEO

Apple's former chief taught all executives how to protect innovations, keep secrets, and enforce their companies' rights.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

September 9, 2011

4 Min Read

In the days following the announcement of Steve Jobs' resignation as Apple CEO, countless articles attributed myriad accomplishments and market-transforming innovations to him. Jobs was hailed as one of the best CEOs of the past 100 years and grouped with the likes of Einstein and Edison for his prowess in inventing or creating the vision for inventing market leading products and technologies. On top of all of those accolades I would like to add one more: Steve Jobs is a lawyer's CEO.

Three concepts that Jobs intertwined into the culture of Apple help its legal function not only preserve and protect the company's interests, but also serve as a revenue center and defender of the marketplace Apple has shaped. Those concepts: Innovation is at the core; secrecy about new product development is a must; and protect your turf.

When a company innovates, it creates something unique. Innovation can be big or small. It can arise by reformulating techniques or technologies that already exist, or it can arise solely from an individual's imagination. It can be market leading or an incremental improvement.

A culture of innovation doesn't just help differentiate products and services in the marketplace; it creates an opportunity to build lasting value for an organization through appropriate legal protections. The utilitarian and design aspects of innovation can be patented, the expression of innovation can be copyrighted, and the look and feel of graphics and words that help consumers identify with a standard of quality as coming from a specific source can be trademarked.

The innovation that Jobs brought to Apple pervades every facet of its operations and, as such, has fostered the creation of considerable value. One would expect the iPhone name to be registered as an Apple trademark or the code of iOS to be registered as a copyrighted work, but did you know that Apple also registered design patents on retail store glass staircases? Most companies don't look far beyond the core products when seeking legal protections, Apple leaves no stone unturned. It's a strategy every business can learn from.

Apple's secrecy, especially when it comes to forthcoming new products, is legendary. This is a major market advantage from a legal perspective. It can allow patents to be issued or moved further along in the registration process even before the product is launched. It adds impact to non-disclosure agreements, which usually exempt publicly known information. And it lets Apple get its legal ducks in a row before another party tries to claim something as its own, avoiding unnecessary and protracted litigation on who invented what and on what timeline.

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For some businesses, absolute secrecy can be counterproductive, but Jobs teaches us that it's important to consider the strategic impact of disclosure and make an educated decision about when to reveal something and when to keep it close to the vest.

Meantime, anyone who has kept up with the news over the last few weeks knows that Apple isn't shy about protecting its turf. Its most prominent legal skirmishes are against Samsung's Galaxy Tab as well as counterfeiting in China. It's good business to protect your turf, especially when you have carved out innovative turf to protect. At Apple, legal serves not only as a mechanism to stop market entrants sporting copied goods, but also as a revenue center by way of royalties and infringement damages.

From a lawyer's perspective, Jobs has taught all business owners and executives to innovate holistically, protect those innovations holistically, keep secrets until it's no longer smart to do so, and enforce their companies' rights as best as they can. It's just one part of a rich legacy.

Dan Liutikas is the chief legal officer of CompTIA, a non-profit IT industry trade association, where he oversees legal and regulatory affairs.

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