Natural Justice and Patents

In Minority Report, Tom Cruise uses a multitouch interface that requires special gloves to operate, removable media to transfer data, and an elaborate two-handed gesture to zoom an image.

It’s pretty hard to find any vaguely balanced commentary on the outcome of the Apple v. Samsung trial that concluded yesterday. I agree with the verdict, so let’s get that out of the way. So don’t expect any vaguely balanced commentary here.

The general arguments I see in favor of Samsung / Android / Google are:

  • Apple’s patents are all trivial and shouldn’t be patents at all OR someone else invented them first (go check out the DiamondTouch video)
  • Apple is being anti-competitive and people will pay more for smartphones because of the decision
  • It’s bad for innovation because Apple will sue little guys who innovate

When Fingerworks patented a whole bunch of “trivial” multitouch technology Apple didn’t think it was too trivial to patent. It didn’t simply steal and imitate the ideas. It bought the company, hired its key people, and acquired its patents.

I remember back in the early days of the web when Amazon got the “one click purchase” patent. A lot of people (myself included) thought this was pretty ridiculous. By the time Amazon was awarded the patent, it seemed “obvious” — but bear in mind that Amazon had made it obvious with many smaller and less obvious innovations (e.g. when it asked you to provide credit card details there was a link with “click here to find out why this is safe” next to the field).

Apple’s reaction to the patent: it licensed it.

I have worked with touchscreens and stylus devices, on and off, for nearly twenty years before the iPhone came out. I can’t say that pinch-to-zoom was “obvious” to me. For that matter, Apple had been developing touch and multi-touch devices for, by all accounts, even longer and it didn’t occur to them until 2005. The fact it seems so obvious in retrospect just goes to show how valuable an idea it is. Of course you can’t patent “ideas”, but you can patent embodiments, and Apple did.

Similarly, Apple patented the rubbery spring-back effect. Not only is this not obvious (does anyone do it with their mousewheel drivers? Anyone? No) but there are perfectly satisfactory alternatives (the Nexus 7, by which I assume vanilla Android 4.1, has a page-curl and glow effect that communicates the same idea just as effectively; the Kindle Fire does something cruder along the same lines). Indeed, it looks like Samsung took an OS from Google that had a perfectly satisfactory and original mechanism for visually representing over scrolling and replaced it with a deliberate imitation of Apple’s mechanism.

Apple is being anticompetitive. It has invented a bunch of stuff and patented it. The patent system is designed to give inventors a temporary, unfair advantage in selling goods based on original inventions. This is not bad for innovation — without it there would be little incentive to innovate, and no incentive to publish innovations.

What the Apple-is-a-big-bully-I-love-Android (I think the acronym is NAMBLA) folk want is a free OS that has all the good things that Apple has invented in it, ideally in a device that looks a lot like an Apple device. They want these things but they don’t think they (or Google or Samsung) should have to pay for or license them or wait for the patents to expire because these inventions and designs are “obvious” and unworthy of patent protection. We can tell that Apple’s IP isn’t worthy of patent protection because the Android vendor which has gone the furthest in shamelessly copying it has done so poorly in the marketplace. Oh, wait.

Anyway, I think Apple should take its winnings (if it ever gets them) and donate them to a cause that solves real problems, like MSF. It might even help recover some of the goodwill it has burned through its lawsuits. (Heck, it’s how Bill Gates atoned for his behavior.)