Apple Patents: Samsung Crossed the Line

Did it really take a team of lawyers well-versed in complex patent law to tell us Samsung ripped off Apple?

I don’t know much about patents, but common sense kicked in when I first saw a Samsung Android smartphone. It looked like an iPhone knock-off. I thought, Can companies really do this?

Now we know they can’t.

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Great ideas. Innovation. Creativity. These things don’t come easy. Many days I’m hoping for a bit of inspiration that might spark an interesting idea for a story. When original ideas are stolen without so much as a thank you – in my profession, links will do – the theft strikes close to the quick.

We get angry because we know how difficult it is to be original.

The late Steve Jobs knew the value of inspiration and its precious offspring, innovation. That’s why he was still looking for ways to inspire Apple employees only a few months before his death. He reportedly saw something in the paintings by Russian-born American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, and he wanted to hang the paintings on the walls at Apple headquarters..

The stakes are raised even higher with a global game-changing product like the iPhone. It is perhaps the most innovative product to come out of Silicon Valley, the land of innovation. Apple iPhone is the Ford Model T, Xerox mouse and Mosaic of its time.

And it was stolen.

In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, Jobs famously said: “I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I’m going to destroy Android because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go to thermonuclear war on this. They are scared to death because they know they are guilty.”

It looks like Jobs’ wish is coming true. Last week, a federal jury found that Samsung infringed on Apple patents. The judge ordered Samsung to pay Apple more than $1 billion in damages. Apple is seeking an injunction to stop Samsung from selling eight smartphones in the U.S., including the popular Galaxy S. Empowered with trial-tested patents, Apple may put other Android handset makers in its crosshairs.

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Critics say Apple is just being a bully. They believe the ruling will hurt competition and consumers. Tech companies steal intellectual property and employees from each other all the time, they claim. This has spawned an industry of patent lawsuits, non-disclosure agreements and no-compete clauses.

The other day a techie friend of mine expressed his concerns, too, that Apple patent protection could get out of hand. If Apple owns the rights to major interface features, he says, then innovation will be stymied. A humorous video making the rounds on the Internet today shows the Star Trek Enterprise crippled by Apple patents. The crew can’t interact with the ship’s computer or the android Data because Apple owns the patent for its Siri voice recognition technology.

Maybe the critics and my friend are right, but theft is still theft.

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Along these lines, a compelling argument is that nothing is truly original anymore. A product that hits the market today shares similarities with a product that has come before it. That is, everything is a copycat and therefore nothing is truly stolen.

But I think it’s a matter of degrees.

Take the case of the Sony Walkman and the iPod. I remember being enthralled back in the day with the Sony Walkman portable cassette player. Its simplicity – a silver casing that hid the cassette, a super-sleek and small profile, and only a few buttons – masked awesome sound performance for its time. Meanwhile, competitors were packing more and more features into their inferior-sounding products.

When I first saw the iPod more than a decade ago, I thought, This feels like the Sony Walkman. But it didn’t occur to me that Apple stole from Sony, and herein lies the rub. Patents face a daunting task: to determine when a product that shares characteristics with another product crosses the line into theft.

I don’t know what the answer is, but there’s one thing I do know after the Samsung-Apple brouhaha: I know a rip-off when I see one.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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