When Steve Jobs recently stepped down as head of Apple Inc.,there was wailing and gnashing of teeth and tearful tributes even from people who aren’t particularly interested in his gadgets. It wasn’t particularly surprising considering what a huge impact Apple has had on our world.
Apple is clearly very popular not only for all their fancy and aesthetically pleasing products, but because they are generally seen as a force for good.
But in the midst of all the hoopla and tributes, I stumbled across an interesting story that painted Apple in a different light.
Apple recently received a touchscreen patent and it is one that could have serious repercussions even for companies that are not direct competitors.
The patent in question gives Apple proprietary rights over the touchscreen interface which is often used with smartphones.
As I understand it, this would involve any action which involves the use of your finger (s) and hands to navigate pages and information on your phone.
A lot of experts feel this is a fairly broad patent, and it could even affect users of plenty of other gadgets including tablets and certain music players. There are fears that Apple may decide to bully the competition with lawsuits, turning the patent into a weapon.
This would turn the technology patent landscape into something resembling a Rambo film, but with patents instead of bazookas.
Obviously we don’t know if Apple will take an aggressive approach with regard to their patent, but as I’ll explain below, patents as weapons-both offensive and defensive-are becoming more commonplace.
The main problem of course is the chilling effect this would have on competitors. Such a broad patent covering a fairly recent and emerging technological aspect like the touchscreen will certainly not do wonders for creativity.
After all, it’s not like Apple even invented touchscreen technology in the first place. Other Firms working on this kind of technology would be reluctant to proceed because they will be worried that a lawsuit will come their way.
But the patent business- at least in this particular field- is a strange one these days. Google recently bought more than 1,000 patents from IBM.
You might think this was a long-term strategy to leverage those patents to increase profits, but you’d be wrong.
Apparently the purchase was for ‘defensive’ purposes-to protect themselves from lawsuits by other companies like-yep, you guessed it- Apple. The Rambo reference wasn’t as ridiculous as you would think.
This appears to be mainly a United States phenomenon, but it is an interesting insight into the future of patents. Instead of becoming a vehicle to protect a company’s rights and interests (and spur creativity) it’s become a method of warfare.
Recently I read about another company that bought hundreds of patents solely to sell them to the highest bidder who in turn tend to use them aggressively to sue companies.
It’s a radical departure from the purpose of patent law. Recent studies have shown that intellectual property tends to overlook how much creativity and invention arises from collaboration between individuals or corporations.
Once you have a situation where firms are more interested in bullying others or protecting themselves from attacking patents, it undermines the collaborative theory. In the long-term, this will hinder creativity. It’s not easy to have technological progress in a climate of fear and hostility.