Who Cares About Apple vs. Samsung? You Should
The sensationalists are calling Apple vs. Samsung â€œthe patent trial of the century.â€ The trial, which began July 30 in Silicon Valley, is the result of a suit filed by Apple in April 2011, accusing Samsung of infringing on patents related to the iPhone and iPad. Samsung counter-sued, saying Apple infringed on its own patents. Now itâ€™s up to a jury and judge to figure it all out.
Together, Apple and Samsung sell over 50 percent of the worldâ€™s smartphones, so itâ€™s easy to dismiss this case as two tech giants fighting for market share. But everyone who does business in the technology world has a stake in the outcome.
â€œImmense Collateral Damageâ€
In a commentary for InformationWeek, Patrick Houston writes that Apple and Samsung are â€œpropagating an intellectual property war with immense collateral damage.â€ Houston, a principal at consulting firm Media Architechs and a former GM at Yahoo!, explains exactly why a patent war over intellectual property could be debilitating:
Its direct costs are sapping promising young companies and R&D budgets. Itâ€™s frustrating the forces of innovation that are vital to economic renewal. And if thatâ€™s not enough, itâ€™s also consolidating more power in the hands of a few companies already uncomfortably close to market domination in mobile â€“ namely Apple and Google, with Microsoft and Amazon not far behind.
The fact that Houston mentions Google is relevant. While this case pits Apple against Samsung, Google is an indirect target because of its Android operating system, which is used by Samsung. Apple has already sparred with Google in a patent dispute with Motorola, which is now owned by Google. On June 22, however, a federal judge dismissed that case, indicating that neither party could present â€œcompelling proof of damages.â€
A Broken Patent System
The larger underlying issue related to the Apple-Samsung case, to which Patrick Houston refers, is the U.S. patent system. Houston points out that patent law is particularly dicey when it comes to software. â€œIt doesnâ€™t help that more than 200,000 software patents alone have been filed since the 1990s,â€ writes Houston. â€œIf you want to do the right thing by creating an e-commerce product that doesnâ€™t infringe on someone elseâ€™s claim, you may have to slog through as many as 5,000 possibly related patents. Want to advertise, charge or ship your product? Prepare to sift through more than double that many. No wonder so many companies have become innocent violators.â€
With this reality in mind, the impact of an out-of-control patent system on smaller companies could be crushing. What does it mean for business going forward if everyone is afraid to innovate because another company has a bigger portfolio of patents? How does any new innovative idea created by a smaller company survive in a marketplace where patent protection is only available to those with the deepest pockets?
Thereâ€™s another insidious game going on: Large companies buy up patents for ideas that may never turn into marketable products, just so they can keep a lock on a particular marketplace. This is akin to the market-restricting practice of those buyers who grab attractive domain names with no intention of using them â€“ they just want to sell them to the highest bidder. It doesnâ€™t sound equitable, but in the name of free market commerce, thatâ€™s the way it is.
Will the Next Facebook Ever See the Light of Day?
Sadly, at the present time, the patent system specifically and intellectual property law in general seems rigged in favor of the big guys (what else is new?). Given the way patents work, the largest companies can apparently obtain them, sit on them, and defend them at will. Litigation has become a marketing tactic.
There will always be new ideas generated by companies large and small. But adaptation and the melding together of ideas are cornerstones of modern technology. Preventing that practice impedes innovation, yet â€œuniqueâ€ ideas need to be protected somehow.
For ideas like Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest to be viable in the marketplace, they should be unencumbered by vague opposing patents owned by companies who want nothing more than to squash anything that even resembles a competitive product. In the long run, reducing competition hurts everyone â€“ well, maybe everyone except the companies who utterly dominate a market. And thatâ€™s why Apple vs. Samsung really matters.