End these stupid patent wars [Editorial]

Ever since  my job at Today’s iPhone began, one thing has remained constant. Every week, the site is littered with stories of patent litigation, trials, disputes, claims, counter-claims and settlements, and frankly, I’ve had enough.

Today, the judge presiding over the current battle between Samsung and Apple in California allowed the two companies to make additions to their prospective lists of offending devices. This is because it’s been a big couple of months for both companies in terms of product releases. As promised, Samsung added the iPhone 5 to their list, whilst Apple added the Samsung Galaxy SIII, the Galaxy Note 10.1 and Android 4.1 Jelly Bean on the Galaxy Nexus. The trial currently being prepared isn’t due to start until 2014, so we can definitely expect more devices to make the list before then. As if the Samsung didn’t need enough encouragement, the judge has also told Samsung that they may add Apple’s new 4th gen iPad and iPad mini to their list.

Now frankly, this whole soap-opera is so darn confusing, that I’m not even sure what’s going on any more, and to be honest, I don’t care. That’s not because I’m ignorant or lazy, if I had the time and resources to follow this trial in detail, then I would. But every time I hear this trial mentioned, I’m confronted by the overriding and glaringly obvious fact that it is us, the consumer, who are going to suffer the most in the long term.

I’m all for the acknowledgement of intellectual innovation, and I think that it’s right that companies and individuals should be able to lay claim to ideas, initiatives and products that they have created. For example, Apple has a multitude of patents covering its various products. These cover things like the design of software, and features of design. Essentially, they ensure that no other company can create an iPhone/iPad and make a profit from it. I think that even the most staunch Apple hater would yield that this is a good thing. But the same goes for all companies, Chevrolet cannot produce trucks that look like the Ford F150, and Microsoft do not have pictures of half-eaten bananas on their PC’s. The establishment of intellectual property on this scale is good, because I think it’s absolutely vital that us, the consumer have a variety of choice when it comes to buying products. It’s also incredibly important that there are clear factors that differentiate between products, so that we can make a learned decision ourselves. In that sense, intellectual property is very good.

However, the patent wars that are raging at the moment are not about the identity of companies. They are about small, petty features that do not make or break the sales success of the products in question. Instead, these patents are being used as flimsy pretexts in a much larger scale effort to gain superiority over a nemesis company. For example, the “Bounce-Back Effect”. As you know, when you reach the end of a page, list or menu on an iPhone, the page “bounces back” gently, Apple claim that Samsung has copied this feature in many of its devices. Now, you may think that Apple are totally justified in protecting features of its user experience such as this. But I think that regardless, the principle this claim is made on is a notion that is detrimental to the evolution of consumer products. Yes, the “Bounce-Back” feature is cool, but should Apple really be so protective over it? As I’ve already said, people do not buy an iPhone because it has the Bounce-Back Effect. Surely, once Apple realised that Samsung had implemented the same feature in their phones,  it would have been more beneficial for Apple to approach Samsung on friendly terms, kindly explain the situation, and offer a very reasonable price at which Samsung might be able to license this patent and use it in their own products. Instead, it seems that Apple would prefer to have all of Samsung’s products banned from sale wherever possible. I understand that “Bounce-Back” (or Rubber-banding as it is formerly known) is not the sole reason for these lawsuits, but that still doesn’t excuse Apple’s intentions. Instead of making their own products better, it appears both companies would rather eliminate the competition…

Imagine if the courts actually decided that Samsung were in fact guilty of infringing these select patents, and all Samsung products were banned. That would be awful. Because it would rocket Apple into a position of complete monopoly over the mobile world. On that basis, Apple could hypothetically stall on innovation for good, simply because there would be no need to make their products better. “I mean, what else are they going to buy?”. I know that Samsung and Apple are not the only companies that offer mobile tech solutions, but I’m sure you understand that the loss of a competitor like Samsung would be a tremendous blow to the consumer. If the Honda Civic was the only car available, then Honda wouldn’t need to make the Honda Civic any better, you buy a Honda Civic, or you don’t have a car, simple. Without competition, there is no fuel for innovation, without innovation, products don’t get better. If products don’t get better, then we’ll be stuck with the same iPhone for a long time. I wonder what that would be like…

I’m not trying to suggest that Apple is wrong to defend their intellectual property. In fact, I encourage it. But I think that this is the wrong way to go about it. I think that Apple, and indeed Samsung, should look to agreeable licensing to manage their intellectual property, rather than corporate assassination by lawsuit. On a side note, I find it incredibly hypocritical that Apple can accuse Samsung of copying any of their technology whilst the notification pull down drawer sits proudly in iOS 6, I’m pretty sure that feature still has “property of Android” written on the back. In the last week, Apple reached a huge deal with HTC, featuring a 10-year licensing agreement ending all lawsuits and the payment an agreeable sum to cover the Apple patents HTC is using. This way, Apple gets recognition for its hard work, and now both companies can focus fully on product innovation. Well, not quite, because Apple is still at loggerheads with Samsung.

Why is it so difficult for Apple and Samsung to reach a similar agreement? Every day this war continues, more resources are poured into pointless litigation rather than product development, and the only loser of that arrangement, is you.


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  • _Donovan_

    Great post.