Rampant intellectual pickpocketing11/2/2016
Stealing is wrong. Right after we teach children to share, we have to teach them that sharing doesn’t mean taking what’s not yours. At that age, theft means taking someone else’s toys, bike or seat in the family van, but as you get older, it takes on all types of meanings. Stealing someone’s bike or wallet are obvious forms of theft. Poaching someone’s girlfriend or taking credit for someone else’s work are misappropriations of an entirely different order. In these smaller examples, it is obvious a wrong has been committed — it’s not until you get industry-scale larceny that culpability becomes blurry. Case in point, the entire smartphone market, which is a mess of pilfered ideas.
This fall, one of the biggest cases of intellectual property theft went before the Supreme Court. After years of battling in lower courts, Apple finally got its day in the highest court in the land, accusing Samsung of pirating key aspects of the iPhone, starting in 2011. Specifically, Apple believes Samsung lifted the iPhone’s round corners, outside case design and grid layout of applications. To be fully informed, one must know Samsung has been manufacturing hardware for Apple for years, so copying and pasting the iPhone design would not be a hard heist to pull off.
Intellectual property cases are among the stickiest crimes to adjudicate. Apple holds a great deal of patents on iPhone and its design, but an incredible cache of prior art and similar products existed prior to its consumer release. Without going into arguments about tablets being smartphone-like devices existing in decades of cinematic science fiction, practically every computer, laptop and device with a screen has incorporated round edges and a hard durable outer case. Grid-based applications have been a feature of graphical user interfaces for decades. The only real argument Apple has is its patents and Samsung having detailed iPhone design plans prior to launching its own smartphone line in 2011.
Patents are one of the worst double-edge swords in modern society. Protecting product designs or original ideas is important for carving a niche in the modern marketplace, but at the same time, virtually anything can be patented, and a patent holder doesn’t need to produce a product or be the first to come up with an idea to exercise his or her legal ownership of a concept. Apple obviously doesn’t fit into this crowd of litigious, silent patent trolls, but this case is emblematic of the issue. Why does anyone get to plant a legal ownership flag on the concept of a personal electronic device with rounded corners? Look at the edge of every surface in the room you’re currently in, and you’ll discover nearly everything has a rounded corner.
If anyone should be upset it should be Motorola or Blackberry. Before Apple, Samsung or anyone became the king of the cellular mountain, these companies set the standard, including rounded edges and screens with neatly laid out program icons. If anything, this Supreme Court hearing should have happened eight years ago with the plaintiff being Blackberry. The iPhone is really nothing more than an intuitive Blackberry with a color screen you touch with your finger instead of a stylus.
Of course, the hot potato of intellectual property theft will continue to be passed around, with Google unveiling its in-house designed and manufactured Pixel line of phones. And wouldn’t you know it, the Pixel looks a lot like the iPhone. The vicious theft carousel goes round once more. ♦
Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.