As I write this on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I had gone to bed the night before with the news that something interesting was happening. The hashtag #BoycottApple was trending wildly on Google+. Then I woke up to find that it had spread to Twitter, Hacker News, Reddit, and so on.
The Internet is alight with outrage against Apple for winning a preliminary injunction against Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus, claiming that Samsung infringes on US patent 8,086,604. This patent basically covers the unified search feature promoted not only in Apple’s Siri, but Android as well. It was this patent, the presiding Judge Koh concluded, that enabled Apple to justify that continued sales of the Galaxy Nexus would cause “irreparable harm” to Apple, which issued a statement regarding the lawsuit:
It’s no coincidence that Samsung’s latest products look a lot like the iPhone and iPad, from the shape of the hardware to the user interface and even the packaging. This kind of blatant copying is wrong and, as we’ve said many times before, we need to protect Apple’s intellectual property when companies steal our ideas.
I, personally, take a few issues from this. First, while Samsung’s products in the past quite obviously were made to look similar to Apple’s iPhone, the Galaxy Nexus is a phone designed by Google and loaded with software directly from Google, only left to Samsung to manufacture. The Galaxy Nexus looks in no way similar to the iPhone apart from the fact that both devices share a touchscreen. Second, Apple fights very hard when companies steal its ideas, when Steve Jobs went on record saying that Apple has “always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” Quite hypocritical, I think.
So most of Apple’s lawsuits are hypocritical, but are they wrong? Should we be punishing Apple for suing other companies for infringing on its patents? No. In fact, some would argue that Apple is simply playing the system and playing to win. I think most people, including myself, would agree that the state of the patent system in the US is horrendous and is the root cause of these petty lawsuits. That’s why, when the #BoycottApple outbreak started, a few suggested something different.
The patent system in the United States as we know it today has been derailed significantly from the founding fathers’ intentions. In Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the US Constitution, it states this:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
To put things simply, patents are not in place to protect the inventor. They are in place to promote invention and innovation. Providing the incentive of exclusivity to the inventor is simply a means to provide the end (rather than vice versa).
This means that the focus of patents should be on innovation, not protection. Outright concentration on protection leads to a sheltered environment where innovation is stifled and progress is lost.
But when did the patent system lose its way? Some suggest that when “processes” were finally allowed to be patented was the defining moment. You no longer had to have a machine to present to the patent office to show that you’d created something novel. All you needed was to write down a method of doing something (e.g., sliding your finger across a touchscreen to unlock a device) and all of a sudden you were a patent owner.
This also allowed an influx of software patents to introduce themselves into the system. Eventually, the situation got to the point where it was considered that “a novel algorithm combined with a trivial physical step constitutes a novel physical device.” Basically, this means that new software loaded onto existing devices creates a completely new device, in the law’s eye.
This is obviously a problem. Now you see companies patenting left and right methods rather than machines. Our society has been reduced from sparking great inventions and innovations to squabbling over how we move our finger around to wake our devices up.
It’s all ridiculous. We need more judges to recognize this and do something serious about it.
But, what can really be done? This is probably where I say something typical like “call your congressman” or something. I don’t know. At the very least, make a point to recognize that an issue is present and something needs to be done about it. Further, let people know that you recognize this as such and want them to recognize it as well. The #BoycottApple trend was great to see, but it would be even greater if that sort of momentum could be directed toward the real root of the problem.
So let’s try to continue the trend into something even more useful. Get out onto Twitter and Google+ and the rest of your social networking toolbox to do something about it.
Give this good stuff a watch, too.
Or, you know, you could just continue being fascinated by slide-to-unlock.