It’s been a year since the legendary Steve Jobs kicked the bucket. Much has changed for the company he passed on to Tim Cook, the current CEO. Apple launched iPhone 4S and then iPhone 5 to critical acclamation — iPad 3 set new standards in IPS technology (even if strictly speaking about tablets) — and needless to say, the $700 (now less of course) stock price it pocketed from shareholders. The biggest achievement for Apple however, was its $1 billion patent victory over Samsung after a successful US court ruling. And since then, patents have become such an important financial aspect that smartphone manufacturers spend more time dating attorneys than R&Ding. But are these patent wars doing more harm than good? Are patent wars hindering innovation, or seem expedient to determine its betterment? Read on to find out why do we think these outlandish court battles are not a pragmatic approach to sort things out.
Not so long ago, Jobs told Walter Issacson (his biographer) that he’d engage in a “Thermonuclear War’” with Google and spend every dime of Apple to destroy Android rather than striking deals with its maker. The man stayed true to his words, and soon after his dreadful warning Apple sued HTC, Motorola and Samsung Electronics, for infringing upon many of its patents and blatantly stealing ideas from Apple’s iDevices. Whilst the iPhone maker initially targeted all the aforementioned Android manufacturers, Samsung was most particularly hard-pressed by Apple’s patent lawsuits, let alone widespread sales bans on various Galaxy tablets and handsets.
The above prologue wasn’t meant to denounce Apple in anyway. The company arguably creates some of the most gorgeous looking and authentic devices we all really adore. But the point is, instead of turning things in favor for us, the consumers, Apple’s policies of deterrence are actually hamstringing the innovation. These policies have also driven a wedge between Apple and its biggest supplier, Samsung.
Now, this would summon two schools of thought. The folks who consider patent enforcement a healthy exercise for innovation and progress, and those, who believe that such behavior is only doing it the other way around. In reality, when a company embarks on such path – like Apple did – it disrupts a balance between what should be patented and what shouldn’t be.
These practices have sparked an inevitable interest in lawsuits among other phone makers, too. Which is further evident by the fact that major Android makers have also started to sue Apple (supposedly in retaliation), and continuing this act would only put innovation back on the rails. Not to mention, the recent lawsuit that Samsung filed against Apple’s iPhone 5, alleging that Apple has infringed eight of its patents – one of them is purportedly the long term evolution (LTE).
Continuing this trend, Google, apparently, is on the move to patent technologies from Android as well, that was proudly thought to be an open source OS – to grant people freedom to develop. To worsen things, Samsung also stripped away many existing features from Galaxy devices, supposedly due to fear of Apple’s intimidating lawsuits.
Now, as more rulings are coming in (mostly biased toward Apple), potential entrants are being hampered from entering the smartphone industry. Therefore, instead of kindling a passion to drive innovation using existing tools, it simply frights them to employ existing technologies, most of them are already patented, while others are whirling around in court battles.
A survey done by Colleen Chien, patent expert and assistant professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, reported that about 40 percent of the small scale businesses are sued because either they mimicked someone’s technology or they used a technology that is widely popular. Even though the former makes a lot more sense, the latter governs somewhat paternalistic approach. It’s quite a bit like your neighbor suing you for using a Wi-Fi because he was the one who owned it in the first place.
“Most small businesses are not well-versed in patent law and cannot afford the legal costs or spend the time to defend themselves against patent demands,” wrote Chien in her paper. “The economics of the situation almost always favor settling the case out of court.”
The awful outcome of these patents is that they have sealed the development on the software part. Because software is an integral component of user interaction with the smartphones, companies like Apple are incessantly looking for ways to pocket more money out of this pivotal element. Google’s pubic policy director, Pablo Chavez, claimed back in August that these software patents are a major threat to innovation, and that consumers are the major sufferers of the ensuing battles.
“We think that these patent wars are not helpful to consumers… They’re not helpful to the marketplace. They’re not helpful to innovation.”
In contrast to coming up with compelling ideas, companies are forcing what’s already available down the consumer’s throats – the reason being the constraints to opt another’s technology with the aim of rejuvenating new ideas. Even still, consumers have to pay outrageous premiums just to own devices that rely on trivial features. As an example, Apple patented a mere ‘scrolling bounce effect’ on its iOS, which forced Samsung to replace the same experience in their Galaxy devices. As a matter of fact, a consumer might be inclined to purchase a device that features a smaller screen, rather than a device who’s features are likely to be disrobed at some point in the future.
What we think is that the lawsuit battles shouldn’t be the ‘be all and end all’ for the smartphone makers. They should maintain a state of equilibrium on patenting their technologies. This will not only create more room for innovation, but also allow potential entrants to enter this lucrative smartphone business without fear. Or else, the only people getting the lion’s share out of these court battles would be the lawyers.