Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Apple vs. Samsung Verdict: When Does Product Imitation Cross the Line?

On Friday, a verdict finally came down in the Apple vs. Samsung case that the technology world has been watching unfold for months.  The verdict was that, yes, Samsung did indeed violate several of Apple's patents related to software design.  Samsung will pay over $1 billion in damages.

Why should you care?  For starters, anyone who uses a smartphone is going to be affected, and much of the punditocracy is arguing that consumers are the real losers hereSamsung is the world's leading smartphone device maker, selling more units than even Apple.  Now, as a result of the favorable court decision, Apple has filed suit to ban eight different Samsung phones.  For the regular user, this will mean, in the short-term, less smartphone options and higher prices for monthly plans from service providers, as telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon will lose leverage over subsidies in negotiating with Apple.

But what really has the tech world abuzz is the idea that many ubiquitous features on the user interface of virtually every smartphone in existence - features like how app icons are arranged in a grid on the main screen, the "pinch-to-zoom" feature, "rounded corners", "black rectangles", etc. - are now the patent-protected sole property of Apple.  Slate.com's Matthew Yglesias has drawn an analogy to the car industry and how absurd it would be for one car manufacturer to own a patent on the idea of a steering wheel and, as a result, that every other car manufacturer would have to design some completely different type of device for navigation.

So much of private industry is based on a copycat culture.  Think of the value that the concept of "reverse engineering" has contributed to the American economy over decades, if not centuries.  The question is whether companies like Samsung have pushed that copycat culture too far, or whether their actions are simply par for the course.

To what extent does product imitation foster competition?  To what extent does it hurt innovation?

These questions are far more complex than many of the pundits are giving them credit for, and off-the-cuff calls for "patent reform" belittle what a massive topic that is.  That said, the real point may be that this ruling is sure to create a chilling effect on software developers who now find themselves in the dark as to what type of code they can write.



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