Apple patent lawsuits are hypocritical

I've been fairly critical of Apple's recent patent bullying -- what I call innovation through intimidation/litigation. The Apple Fanclub of bloggers and journalists defend the company's patent and other intellectual property claims as protecting its innovations from copying, particularly by Samsung. But who's copying whom?

As several Betanews commenters recently point out, Apple cofounder, current Chairman and former CEO Steve Jobs admits to the company copying from others. From a mid 1990s interview: "Picasso had a saying, he said: 'Good artists copy, great artists steal'. We have, you know, always, ah, been shameless about stealing great ideas".

Jobs proudly proclaims that Apple steals great ideas. Shamelessly. I don't have a problem with that. I don't believe there are any original ideas, anyway, something that is becoming more apparent as social media services connect more people. We take cues from the natural world and the people around us. Innovation is a process not so much of creating something new but taking what we know and applying it in different ways or adapted to new situations.

I remember when Apple introduced Mac laptops with backlit keys, which got rave (and deserved) praise from Mac fans and others. But light in darkness isn't a new concept, nor backlit keys. Look no further than your car's dashboard and radio when the headlights are on. Apple innovated in how it brought that concept to the Mac. But even then, the company worked with technologies already available. It's not like Apple engineers spent hundreds of millions of dollars producing a new light source for lighting laptop keyboards. I'm not trying to diminish Apple invention but look at it from a different viewpoint.

Apple defenders don't see it that way. I hear it so often: "No one created touchscreen cell phones shaped like iPhone until Apple, then everyone copied". "Galaxy Tab looks like iPad 2 -- it's copying, stealing". But what's wrong with that? The cornerstone of patent law is limited monopoly. The government grants the inventor a limited-time monopoly on the invention in exchange for publishing it. The idea is to spur more invention by way of derivative works, and in a sense that's innovation by copying on the work of others. Society hugely benefits from this approach, as one inventor's creation leads someone else to make something else -- thus pushing technology's advance. Patents are supposed to spur innovation, not prevent it.

Here's another-universe hypothetical: Apple owns rights to all the technologies in iPhone and its look and feel. The courts rule that no one else can create a touchscreen phone, use proximity sensors, gestures or other functions. As a result, Apple locks up the market for smartphones, and no one else can compete. What happens? Innovation stops. Without competition, Apple has little incentive to innovate. iPhone prices remain high, and the company seeks to protect its market and sales position rather than develop something new.

That just about describes every monopoly that ever existed. Another reason for the foundational principles behind patent law and the granting of limited-time monopoly: Prevent real monopolies from forming like this hypothetical one.

Instead, Apple files patent and intellectual claims with the International Trade Commission and the courts against competitors like HTC or Samsung. Apple uses the legal process to prevent others from innovating, by engaging in competition by litigation. The company's legal filings accuse competitors of copying its products.

But who's copying whom? Jobs' 1979 visit to Xerox PARC, where he was introduced to the concepts of graphical user interface and mouse that he later incorporated into Macintosh, is legendary. Apple is a notorious copier -- granted taking others' ideas and doing something else with them, or something at all. Few months back, I identified five things iOS 5 copies from Android, for example. I could write a lengthy post on Apple's copying practices, there are so many examples.

But that's okay. Building on the work of others is how societies benefit. It's cornerstone of concepts like public domain or even fair use, and absolutely how patents are meant to be used -- not to protect one's invention but to spur even more from others.

Is there something hypocritical here? That it's okay for Apple to copy -- in Jobs' words steal -- but unacceptable for others to do the same or invent something new learned from Apple innovations? I pose the question to you.

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