By Warren Jones
What is innovation? What is advancement? What is the next big thing? We have always lived under the impression that new, original and innovative ideas are rewarded, and should be protected. But where does blatant copying end and the current trend begin? Is the innovator the first person to create something? Or is the innovator the person who takes a mundane product and makes it fly off the shelves?
We are fairly comfortable with the idea that the Toyota Prius was the first hybrid vehicle the public embraced and fell in love with. When it was launched in the United States in 2001, it was the first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid ever; however, the first generation Prius failed to gain any traction with consumers. Lackluster design and minimal interior room made it a long-term resident on showroom floors. In 2003, a redesigned body, more interior space and upgraded hybrid technology increased sales and led to the Prius being instantly recognizable on the road. Since then the four-door midsize lift-back shape and style of the Prius has been interpreted by Ford, Chevy, Lexus, Nissan, Honda and others. Is this blatant copying? Or is this simply recognition of a good idea and working to stay up-to-date?
Since spring 2011 Apple and Samsung have been involved in more than 50 lawsuits spanning at least 10 countries around the globe. The initial lawsuit came from Apple, claiming that Samsung had “blatantly copied” its iPhone and iPad, showing photos of Samsung phones and tablets before and after iPhone and iPad were launched. They are dramatically different. Physical keyboards and tiny screens were ditched in favor of wide screen displays. Cumbersome buttons, lights and switches have all been done away with as a more minimalist approach is being taken. But is this copying? Is this theft? Apple seems to think so, and while you may not think it’s of any importance to pay attention, you may want to think again.
With Samsung, Motorola, HTC, Kodak, Cisco, Amazon and Nokia all currently locked in or recently involved in legal battles against Apple, legal costs, settlements and royalty payments are astronomical—a cost that will most likely end up being passed along to the consumer. But even more disturbing is Apple’s stance that innovation must be original. Let’s not forget, as a whole, Apple has put itself in the position it is in today by taking pre-existing products and making them beautiful and user friendly. Apple didn’t invent the computer, MP3 player, smartphone or tablet; the company simply made them fun, friendly and easy to use.
The idea of obtaining a patent to protect yourself from others copying you is not new, nor is the idea that patents are valuable; however, the idea that patents are weapons to be used at the expense of the consumer, with little regard for how obvious or minuscule they are, is a new idea. Imagine if Henry Ford had patented the idea that his cars had four wheels and had held the position that other manufacturers blatantly copied him by making cars with four wheels. Granted, this example may be a little extreme, and there are many details and nuances involved in this ongoing dispute, but it perhaps highlights the crux of the issue: the U.S. patent system is flawed. If Apple ever makes a touchscreen desktop or laptop, it will be interesting to see if other computer manufacturers take legal action against Apple, because both of those devices already exist.
Will these legal battles have a long-term effect on progress and innovation? The precedent is now being set for what is legally defined as copying and what isn’t. Will we fail to ever see flying cars because a movie studio says it created the first vision of one in The Man with the Golden Gun? No teleporters because Star Trek did transporters first? No lightsaber because of Star Wars? No neuralyzers because of Men in Black? The smartphone legal battles just might cause you to miss out on some amazing technology in the future.