Is patent law anti-competitive? In mobile, it could be.
Earlier this week you may have read about the Patent infringement case between Apple and HTC that has currently resulted in certain HTC/Android phones being banned for sale in the United States. Being a bit of an Androidophile, I was understandably miffed.
The patent infringement, stemming around data recognition, involves a feature in which the phone recognizes a telephone number so it can be stored in directories or called without dialing.
Apple’s underlying motivation for this move is quite obvious:
“The fight can be traced back to a decision by Jobs in March 2010 to file the HTC case, the first patent complaint by a device maker targeting Google’s Android operating system. Jobs, who died Oct. 5, made it his mission “to destroy Android,” which he said “ripped off the iPhone, wholesale,” according to Walter Isaacson’s biography of the Apple founder.” -via Bloomberg
This recent going-on got me thinking about how patent law has evolved (or devolved) within the confines of our country’s capitalistic framework. Patent law, which is supposed to protect the interests of innovators and inventors, should be have a bolstering, accelerative effect on technological and economic development.
But the more I see and hear about the myriad patent infringement cases that all of these companies are embroiled in, the more I think that it has the opposite effect.
Last August, Reuters published a graphic that visualized all a veritable “who’s suing who” in the tech world:
There you have it: Apple certainly isn’t the only one suing. Collectively, these companies are probably spending tens of millions for lawyers, all in the name of disrupting competition. I was having a hard time correctly verbalizing my issues with how these companies leverage copyright law, but it comes down to this:
Our country’s current iteration of patent law undermines the ethos of antitrust law. Blocking others from building on a technological process innovation lays a red carpet out for monopolistic situations.
Is it wrong to allow companies to “copy” or further develop ideas that weren’t their own?
I’m reminded of something my high school art teacher said to me over ten years ago:
“Art isn’t created in a vacuum.”
I think the same holds true in technology. Almost everything in art and tech is derivative. They are by their very nature evolutionary constructs. To restrict this growth in the name of hoarding an idea is counterproductive and damaging to technological progress in general.
If any one of these companies had its way and was able to block all the technology it claimed as its own, it would be effectively be operating as a monopoly player in the cell phone market.
I wonder if this motivation goes beyond greed. Are all of these companies scared and paranoid of the others one-upping their initial innovations?
The thing is, this back-and-forth one-upping is a core component of working within a capitalistic construct, it’s also the main accelerant of technological innovation.
Without it, the needs of the public are overshadowed by tech companies who act monopolistically. Without the catalyst of competition, the rate of new innovation is bound to slow down. I wish all of the tech players would stop suing each other over technology patents and instead concentrate on creating the best products and innovations with them. Let the marketplace determine who the true innovators are, not the courts. If you’re worried about not coming out on top, then your product doesn’t withstand its ultimate litmus test- the marketplace.
The writers at Gizmodo said it best in today’s post:
“I’m all for seeing Apple defend its intellectual property. But Android is a healthy force in the marketplace. If Apple can destroy it there, more power to Tim Cook and company. But if Apple beats Android in the courts rather than the marketplace—if it out-segs Google instead of out-innovating it—that may be great for Apple, but it will be bad for society, bad for technology, and ultimately bad for Apple.
And of course, the great irony is that so much of the amazing innovation that Apple pulled off over the past three decades can be traced back to its willingness to swipe ideas from Xerox. Steve jobs was fond of quoting Picasso, saying “good artists copy, great artists steal.” If Apple does succeed in crushing Android in the courts, where will it get its next great idea? My guess is that it won’t come from a lawyer.”