So we are once again immersed in yet another trial involving Apple and Samsung over intellectual property. Each company accuses the other of patent violations. But it’s not a crime and the offender doesn’t go to prison. It’s a civil action, and the loser may be ordered to pay the winner a sum of money, and may even be ordered not to sell the allegedly infringing products.
Yet these two companies have been embroiled in expensive legal battles for several years. There have been wins, losses, draws, but you can still buy iPhones and iPads, and you can certainly buy Samsung smartphones and phablets. Maybe Samsung has done a little interface tweaking here and there, but at the end of the day, despite all the skirmishes, nothing much has changed.
Well, unless you are one of the lawyers representing either party, in which case you are earning huge fees, and can only wish for those huge fees to continue.
Now I’m not about to discuss the ins and outs of patent law. One popular site, Foss Patents, has argued that at least some of Apple’s patents aren’t terribly significant or even necessarily original, and that there is prior art even on the so-called “data detectors” feature. That’s the one where you click on a link in, say, an email, and you access related content, such as the tracking information on an item you just ordered.
It will be up to the juries or the judges to make the final determination. But that isn’t really final. The losing site will appeal, and, with the help of those expensive litigators, use every means possible to delay the inevitable, or even get a new trial. As time goes by, the products that allegedly contain infringing components or features will no longer even be available. The profits will have been made and spent, and yet the claims will go on and on.
Don’t get me wrong. Apple and any other company with an original invention should have the right to protect those inventions via a patent. And companies who infringe on those patents should be forced to stop building the infringing products or services, and pay an appropriate fee for damages.
As you probably know, when the iPhone was announced at a Macworld Expo in 2007, Steve Jobs famously boasted that it was patented. The word was used on the Keynote presentation too, to drive home the point. Jobs also famously talked of going nuclear against Google because of Android and its close resemblance to the iPhone.
This is not to say that Samsung didn’t infringe on something, because their own internal documents show how closely the iPhone influenced their designs. But that’s nothing new for Samsung, which famously imitates popular gear with cheaper versions.
It doesn’t mean those products are necessarily bad, just imitative. So long as they can get away with it, the behavior continues, and Samsung’s executives don’t have a stellar reputation even in South Korea for being honest brokers. This sort of behavior is built into the company’s DNA, in the same way that Apple’s own DNA enables them to pave new ground in building tech gear.
This also doesn’t mean that you can’t find influences for iOS features on other platforms. Consider the Notification Center and the influences from Palm OS and Android as examples. Apple wasn’t the first to produce a gadget with a touchscreen either. They do rely on prior art, but they manage to do it in a way that comes across as being original.
The courts will decide, once again, whether Samsung’s imitation is too blatant, or whether it should be toned down. Besides, I’m sure the company has many thousands of talented designers and engineers on staff, so why can’t they come up with something original — something original that actually works?
I do not mean the junkware that ended up on the Galaxy S4 smartphone, which wasn’t quite the smashing success many expected it to be. Most of those useless apps and features filled space rather than offer a superior experience for customers.
At the end of the day, however, what have all these lawsuits accomplished? The lawyers are earning huge paydays, but nothing seems to change, so why bother? Yes, a company must defend a patent or otherwise the infringement will simply continue.
Many suggest that the loose patent laws are responsible, that inventions that do not deserve a patent get one anyway, and thus a company earns the right to sue. Of all the tens of thousands of patents covering mobile and desktop computing gear, how many of them are so original that they deserve protection anyway? I don’t mean that everything should be open source, although some feel that way.
I’m sure you agree with me that, all over again, Apple’s legal skirmishes are becoming boring and old news real fast. I continue to hope that saner minds, particularly at Samsung, will take the hint and come up with a solution that actually makes sense for both companies and the customers. If the lawyers earn smaller, but still significant, paychecks, where’s the harm?