iPhone, uCopy, iSue
Not every innovation deserves a patent. Not every copycat deserves a punishment
When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he changed an industry. Apple’s brilliant new device was a huge advance on the mobile phones that had gone before: it looked different and it worked better. The iPhone represented innovation at its finest, making it the top-selling smartphone soon after it came out and helping to turn Apple into the world’s most valuable company, with a market capitalisation that now exceeds $630 billion.
Apple’s achievement spawned a raft of imitators. Many smartphone manufacturers now boast touch-screens and colourful icons. Among them is Samsung, the world’s biggest technology manufacturer, whose gadgets are the iPhone’s nearest rivals and closest lookalikes. The competition and the similarities were close enough for Apple to sue Samsung for patent infringement in several countries, spurring the South Korean firm to counterclaim that it had been ripped off by Apple as well. On August 24th an American jury found that Samsung had infringed six patents and ordered it to pay Apple more than $1 billion in damages, one of the steepest awards yet seen in a patent case (see article).
Some see thinly disguised protectionism in this decision. That does the jury a disservice: its members seem to have stuck to the job of working out whether patent infringements had occurred. The much bigger questions raised by this case are whether all Apple’s innovations should have been granted a patent in the first place; and the degree to which technology stalwarts and start-ups alike should be able to base their designs on the breakthroughs of others.
It is useful to recall why patents exist. The system was established as a trade-off that provides a public benefit: the state agrees to grant a limited monopoly to an inventor in return for disclosing how the technology works. To qualify, an innovation must be novel, useful and non-obvious, which earns the inventor 20 years of exclusivity. “Design patents”, which cover appearances and are granted after a simpler review process, are valid for 14 years.
The dispute between Apple and Samsung is less over how the devices work and more over their look and feel. At issue are features like the ability to zoom into an image with a double finger tap, pinching gestures, and the visual “rubber band” effect when you scroll to the end of a page. The case even extends to whether the device and its on-screen icons are allowed to have rounded corners. To be sure, some of these things were terrific improvements over what existed before the iPhone’s arrival, but to award a monopoly right to finger gestures and rounded rectangles is to stretch the definition of “novel” and “non-obvious” to breaking-point.