If the idea of being in the jury for the protracted legal battle between Apple and Samsung makes you want to cry, you are in good company. The titanic battle to determine whose ideas were whose has cost millions in legal fees and fried the brains of judges and juries along the way. Ultimately, it’s been for around 120 million dollars in Apple’s favour, and to these tech giants, that’s fair small change.
The more damning exchange of funds was had in the first round of the patent wars, where Samsung was made to pay Apple around $1 billion in damages, after a jury decided to levy punitive damages for the apparent infringement of several Apple patents.
Ultimately, this has achieved very little. For all of the patents that Samsung have been accused of infringing, there are trivial ways to design, or code, around so that they end up looking very similar but are legally safe. Of course, one might ask why Samsung didn’t just do that in the first place and save a lot of trouble.
Patents exist to protect the hard work that people put into developing products and their right to earn money from that work. That’s fine, but the whole notion of intellectual property seems to have gained a life of its own, and in an age where high tech products are becoming ever more commoditised, many corporations are seeing intellectual property as their crown jewels.
There’s certainly sympathy to be had for this position, as some innovations are certainly not trivial. However, the problems arise when companies start arguing over touch gestures and user interface elements.
These elements, while certainly taking some work to create, are not huge revolutions. For instance, while I’m not a professional developer, I understand enough about programming to quickly write down how pinch to zoom should work, yet this is something that has been litigated over. Its triviality is why the claim didn’t succeed.
While Apple has been assuming the position of the injured party in its legal war with Samsung, Apple is not above stealing ideas either:
- The notification centre – Both Android and WebOS had this before Apple.
- Application folders – Nokia had this in its Symbian OS years before Apple.
- Samsung even pointed out that the film 2001: A Space Odyssey had prior art on the idea of the iPad (though the jury did not accept this).
Even Steve Jobs, who famously said he’d go “thermonuclear” on Android, is quoted as saying “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. Whichever interpretation you wish to put on that, he was using positive adjectives to describe using other people’s ideas.
As uncomfortable as it may make us feel, Jobs was actually right. Ideas are fluid and they are mostly not exclusive – especially in the age of the internet, where ideas spread faster than ever before. The person or company who has an idea first might not be the one to make that idea into a success. Here an appropriate mantra might be “If you’re not the first, be the best”.