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Monday, 27 August 2012 05:35

Apple, Samsung and intellectual honesty


Apple’s billion dollar patent win over Samsung shows all that is wrong with the modern regime of so-called intellectual property.

A court in California ruled that Samsung has copied the iPhone’s “utility and design” and its “trade dress” – in other words, its look and feel. The Samsung Galaxy phones are too much like the iPhone, it seems.

Note the debate is not about underlying technology. It’s about things like scrolling and icons and bezels. In the modern world it is possible to patent how something looks, or a colour, or a sound.

It seems the IT industry today is as much about patents as about technology. Everybody sues everybody else on the slightest pretext. Some companies employ more lawyers than technologists. “Patent trolling” in which one company frivolously sues another for patent infringement to divert their resources, is accepted practice.

Patents are supposed to ensure individuals and companies profit from new inventions. They are supposed to benefit society by encouraging innovation. But they do not do so - the system is broken.

Ever since the late 18th century, when James Watt abused his monopoly on steam engine design, patents have been used the thwart innovation, not encourage it. Watt cleverly thought to include a separate condenser in his engine, and historians generally agree that this megalomaniacal protection of that simple idea put the industrial revolution back a decade or more.

It’s been downhill since then. Edison developed a patent factory, and his hounding of Nikola Tesla in the AC/DC “current wars” shows the length to which patent power can be abused. Tesla, one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, died penniless, despite inventing the electrical distribution system that powers the world and having hundreds of patents to his name.

Patenting something like a menu scrolling mechanism or the shape of an icon is like patenting the concept of a book – the words go left to right and you “turn” the “page” by lifting it with your finger and rotating it through 90 degrees so it is flush with the previously read pages on the left.

Or music, which must comprise “notes” on a chromatic “scale”. They are transcribed on five-line “staves” and broken into “bars”. Sound silly? Sure is.

I believe the very concept of “intellectual property” is absurd. Ideas are not objects. We see further not by standing on the shoulders of a few giants, but by standing on the toes of innumerable dwarves. If Og had a patent on the wheel we would still be dragging things around on sleds.

OK, so Apple gets a billion dollars off Samsung, which must cease and desist and work out other ways to perform basic mobile phone functions. Remember, Apple stole the idea of the mouse and pirated the graphical user interface, and has in truth as much respect for intellectual property as Pirate Bay.

Its holier than thou protestations that Samsung stole its ideas are hypocritical to the point of dishonesty. Meanwhile we all lose, because Apple’s selfish actions are diverting us from the main game.

But don’t blame Apple. Blame a system designed and maintained by the politico-legal colossus, a system that has become a self-perpetuating monument to human stupidity and greed.

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Graeme Philipson

Graeme Philipson is senior associate editor at iTWire. He is one of Australia’s longest serving and most experienced IT journalists. He is author of the only definitive history of the Australian IT industry, ‘A Vision Splendid: The History of Australian Computing.’

He has been in the high tech industry for more than 30 years, most of that time as a market researcher, analyst and journalist. He was founding editor of MIS magazine, and is a former editor of Computerworld Australia. He was a research director for Gartner Asia Pacific and research manager for the Yankee Group Australia. He was a long time weekly IT columnist in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and is a recipient of the Kester Award for lifetime achievement in IT journalism.

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