I’ve been struggling about what to make of the recent patent spat between Samsung and Apple. I do think that the level of discorse provided by most techies on this issue is somewhat lacking. Hacker News seems to have come down firmly on the “patents are evil, ergo Apple is too” side of things. I’m not sure it’s quite so simple.
Here’s what I know:
- I’m against business process or “method” patents. This generally covers most software or patenting things like algorithms.
- I think there is an incredible amount of copying that goes on in the tech world. Every company does it, and every company cries foul when it’s done against them. I’ve written about this before.
- I do believe that copying a tangible product should not be legal or tolerated. Fake clothing brands, for example, or counterfeit items are not only crass, they can be dangerous (remember the baby formula issue in China?).
- It was obvious from day one that Google and Android blatantly, crudely, and poorly ripped off iOS. They didn’t spend any effort on being original or attempting to innovate. I think the mental gymnastics that are performed by many geeks trying to absolve Google in this respect are intellectually dishonest and silly.
- In my experience, the best defense is a good offense and the only real way to beat someone who’s ripping you off is to out innovate them. Consumers will generally figure out who’s for real and who is playing second fiddle.
- There have been several incidents over the past few years on Hacker News where a startup felt they were being copied by others, and the entire community expressed a lot of outrage over this.
I’m an Apple stock holder and an Apple customer. Have been for years. I think the conclusion that I’m coming to on this particular issue is that I feel a guilty party got what they deserved (for product trade dress copying) but the means to the victory was really awful (using the patent system). I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me if Levis can sue someone for ripping off their logo or making fake goods without owning a patent to the blue jean, why can’t we have that method in the tech industry? I’m curious if using the patent system in this respect was a “nuclear option” that sends a signal to everyone else who might cross them in this area. Apple certainly learned a lot during their lawsuit against Microsoft in the nineties and probably had their playbook well thought through prior to even launching the iPhone. I also feel like Google got away with something here, as they were culpable in ripping Apple off as well.
The most bizarre thing about this whole mess is that somehow Microsoft came out looking like a world class innovator with their new Metro mobile OS which looks nothing like iOS. Ten years ago, who could have imagined a scenario where Apple wins against someone ripping them off, Microsoft is the innovator, and Google is the evil corporation blatantly and poorly copying someone else?