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Basis for Apple vs. Samsung Decision

August 27, 2012

This past week, a jury of nine people convicted Samsung of infringing the patents of Apple. There were a number of patents that Apple claimed were infringed. Per CNET, the devices and patents were numerous. In a nutshell:

  • ‘381: “rubber band” effect when reaching the bottom of a document (“look and feel”)
  • ‘915: ability to differentiate between single-touch and multi-touch, just like Microsoft’s older surface computing table (how Apple got this patent in the face of prior art, I do not know) (“look and feel”)
  • ‘163: double tap on screen to enlarge and center portions of the screen (“look and feel”)
  • D ‘677: related to the front face of the iPhone (“design”)
  • D ‘087: related to the general outline (“design”)
  • D ‘305: the icon arrangement in a grid with round corners (“look and feel”), like the Palm Pilot, Windows Mobile, and Apple Newton from years ago

It is impossible for me to say which of these “inventions” are truly inventions. That said, I largely do not agree with “look and feel” patents. Often, “look and feel” is a matter of current fashion. It’s what’s in vogue. I certainly feel that way about icon arrangement and the look of icons, scrolling, etc.

The “rubber band” effect is an interesting effect, but that’s what it is: an effect. It is not an invention, really. Computer graphics students have for years been creating programs with bouncing balls and such that behave in a similar way. So what was “invented” was not the bouncing effect, but the application of that effect to scrolling. So is that an invention?

I think similar arguments can be made for most, if not all of these patents. Apple has truly created a revolutionary platform, but what was revolutionary was bringing together a powerful operating system, applications, and an app store, all while making it as simple to use as possible. Apple did not create the first mobile phone. Apple did not create most of the graphical user interface elements and concepts. Apple did not create the first operating system, and certainly not the first powerful mobile operating system. What Apple did was package it well and market it extremely well.

One has to wonder whether these user interface and design patents are even valid. Consider where the U.S. patent system originated. It came about due to Article I §8 of the U.S. Constitution which says, “Congress shall have the power … to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

Exactly where does a user interface design fit into writings or discoveries? I would agree with a design patent that describes the process of creating a particular kind of material or shape through a complex manufacturing process, the process for which had to be discovered through scientific research. However, a “rubber band” effect, icon arrangement, and aluminum edge around a glass screen hardly falls into that category.

Exactly how does the patent system that allows for such patents in any way “promote the progress of science or useful arts”? The answer is that it does not.

Apple’s bold entrance into the mobile communication space has significantly impacted the market and I applaud them for leading the revolution. At the same time, awarding these kinds of patents to Apple does not help to “promote the progress of science”. Rather, it serves just the opposite. Apple did not need those patents to become the wealthiest company in the world. However, it can use those patents to prevent anyone else from attempting to create competitive products. In so doing, it is the consumers – the public – that suffers. We want Apple to continue to innovate and we want Samsung and others to push the envelope. That is how technology progresses in all industries.

In any case, it is very interesting to see how the basic concepts of promoting science and useful arts has mushroomed into the complex copyright and patent system we have today. Now, we have cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse protected for some 70 years beyond the death of the inventor, copyright assigned to things other than writing or useful arts (the latter including music and movies), and patents awarded on the arrangement of icons in a grid pattern.

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