Patent battles in the digital world
An iPhone Photo: Courtesy of Apple

Patent battles in the digital world

Mumbai, August 30, 2012

It’s funny sometimes how things play out. Today, I write about the Apple versus Samsung patent war and how it’s rolled out so far in two different worlds – the real and the digital.

I deliberately call it a war because of the fact that at last count, the two giants were embroiled in design patent lawsuits in eight different countries outside the United States of America. In fact, if one report is to be believed, telecom companies including phone manufacturers were locked in as many as 50 different lawsuits. An inevitable process of the competitive times we live in today; at stake is the US $219 billion market for smartphones and tablets.
But to return to the Apple vs Samsung saga. Apple is basking in the victor’s glow, having won $1 billion in the lawsuit against Samsung when a jury in a US court ruled last week that the latter had copied a handful of the iPhone’s features.
I reproduce some of the common reactions that echoed in the two worlds we live in today, post that ruling, though in no particular order.
Real world reaction # 1: I am in India. Will l have to give up my Samsung phone now?
Digital world reaction #1: What happens to smartphone innovation?
Real world reaction #2: Will I have no option but to buy an iPhone now if I need an upgraded version?
Digital world reaction #2: Will the ruling give innovation a new boost or will it curb it?
Real world reaction #3: Will people buy other brands like Nokia more?
Digital world reaction #3: Will copycats be doubly careful now?
Clearly, the digital world is more concerned about larger issues like the possible impact of the court ruling on innovation and design of yet-to-come smartphones, while the real world seems more focused on the practical stuff like the court ruling’s fallout on the use of such phones. Natural. After all, phones may be designed in the digital world but its users are real people like you and me.
While real world users try and work out the impact on their present Samsung telecom products (most of you can be rest assured that the Samsung you own will not be snatched away), a very interesting debate has broken out in the digital world, one which I suspect, was initiated by the losing party in this war.
Samsung, which incidentally is the world’s biggest tech company by revenue, responded to the Californian jury’s verdict by issuing a public statement, saying it was a loss for the American consumer that will lead to fewer choices, less innovation, and potentially higher prices.
Sector analysts, smartphone reviewers, writers, journalists and bloggers found themselves ranged against each other around this one central question - Will Apple’s win encourage or curb smartphone design innovation?
For the last week or so, the digital media space is full of such analysis. Take what Henry Blodget, Editor-in-Chief of a prominent online portal, Business Insider, had to say about the development: "...because to the extent that Apple persists in pursuing this lame-o (and totally un-Apple-like) competitive strategy, it will result in consumers having fewer excellent non-Apple smartphone choices.
“And arguably, it will also gradually teach Apple engineers that they don’t have to win by designing the best products in the marketplace anymore.....but instead, by siccing lawyers on anyone who copies something Apple did in some earlier product.”
Then, there was this counter by Jesus Dias in the Gizmodo, where he said " hope that Apple wins all the appeals. Hope that Apple wins every single lawsuit in which their patents are valid. Because the fact is that Apple’s court triumph will drive innovation, not stifle it. will give us, the consumer, more options not less."
If you were to ask me (and only then) on which side of the debate I stood, I would say this for now: I have no opinion on whether smartphone design innovation will get a boost or go bust. But any company that has spent a fair amount of time and money developing and designing something, owns it. No doubt. Yes, even if it something as mundane as having the rights over making a rectangular and white phone instrument. One writer compared it to having patent rights over the steering wheel of a car. What would have happened if the original designer had patented it and sued other automobile manufacturers for using round steering wheels, he wondered.
While the comparison may be right, and there is no need to re-invent the wheel every time, in my opinion, we live in different, highly regimented (and difficult) times today. If a design has been patented by one company and another wants to copy it, the latter can start by simply seeking the former’s permission to duplicate it and offering a royalty in return.
Expensive, yes, but it is the ethical and professional way of doing business. Then, depending on the type of design or innovation sought, the original patent holder may decide whether it wants to partially give away its rights to something that it feels the larger world can well benefit from or not. Clandestine copying is no solution.
I suspect that Samsung may secretly agree to my viewpoint because it, too, has several patents to its name, and has dragged other companies including Apple to court for alleged infringements.
Over to you, Samsung.

Previous columns by Sorab Ghaswalla

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