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The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Gordon Kelly

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The Sincerest Form of Flattery

The eccentric poet Charles Caleb Colton once said “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Nearly 200 years after Colton’s death it is still hard to disagree, but in an era of multi-billion dollar technology corporations it is easy to get angry.

On Monday evening Apple's anger hit new heights. The company announced one of the biggest lawsuits of all time, going after Samsung, the biggest electronics company on the planet. Apple declared it was suing Samsung for deliberately copying the "the look and feel" of its iPhone and iPad with its Galaxy range of smartphones and tablets.

"Rather than innovate and develop its own technology and a unique Samsung style for its smart phone products and computer tablets, Samsung chose to copy Apple's technology, user interface and innovative style in these infringing products," said Apple in its strongly worded lawsuit. Apple seeks actual and punitive damages and a conclusion that the infringements were wilful.

In fairness Apple has pulled such tricks before, though on a smaller scale. It already has outstanding lawsuits against Motorola and HTC and has long traded court hearings with Nokia. Where this lawsuit differs, however, and what makes it interesting is Apple and Samsung are big business partners. How big? Last year Apple spent $5.7bn on Samsung components. This includes chips, flash storage and RAM for the aforementioned iPhone and iPad as well as its line of Macs.

"Apple is one of our key buyers of semiconductors and display panels," said a Samsung representative in response to the lawsuit. "However, we have no choice but respond strongly this time." In a separate statement the company declared: "Samsung will respond actively to this legal action taken against us through appropriate legal measures to protect our intellectual property" and vowed counteraction.

All of which asks two fundamentally important questions right now of the technology industry: 1. What are tech companies' priorities in the 21st century? and 2. Is the evolution of technology inevitably headed towards common ideas and form factors or is it running out of ideas?

Number one is easy. More than ever before the tech space is about patents. Patents, patents, patents. And good patents come through extensive spending on research and development. Apple may do $5.7bn of annual business with Samsung, but it also spends billions with the likes of Foxconn, Intel and Nvidia (for now) and in licensing chip designs from ARM. These companies are split into huge divisions and while Samsung may be angry at Apple's lawsuit, business will continue to flow between the two companies as long as Apple has products that sell in their millions. What this comes down to is appealing products, which come from good R&D and those products being unique - which is where patents come in.

Yoda once said: "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." For technology companies there is a precursor: R&D leads to patents, patents lead to power and imitation leads to fear. It is the endless fight to stay relevant. Everything else be damned.

Evilpaul

April 20, 2011, 4:04 pm

The whole patent thing has got out of hand, and while I can fully understand companies wanting to protect the truly innovate products, designs and ideas, a lot of patents are just rubbish.

It is high time for some sort of patent "spring cleaning" to get rid of the crud patents where there is obvious prior art or no innovative idea. Unfortunately this would require someone to stump up the cash to legally challenge these crud patents, something that is unlikely to happen.

These kinds of lawsuits are more about trading patent licenses or doing deals, and less about protecting Intellectual Property.

Kempez

April 20, 2011, 5:22 pm

I can kind of see Apple's point on one hand. But on the other, this is just a massive waste of time and resource.

As said above, the patent system needs to be refreshed and cleaned out. If Apple truly have some patents for innovative ideas and technology, then it should be easy and quick for them to A: get the patent and B: protect the patent. The same goes for all other companies. The whole patenting vague 'ideas' is ridiculous though.

On another note, there's loads of errors in the article relating to your hot-links. Seems like someone should have more thoroughly checked these before they went live.

Chris

April 20, 2011, 5:30 pm

I do agree that touchscreens are limiting the variety of handsets. A 4 inch screen will dominate any pocket-sized device, to the point that handsets all end up sharing almost identical form factors.

However, I don't think Apple's latest accusations against Samsung are a product of this. Apple are specifically targeting the 'look and feel' of Samsung's handsets, not the broader aspects of the design. The silver trim around the Galaxy S, the rounded corners of the device, the large central home button, the square icons, the 4 icon dock. It's easy to discount Apple's attack on these details as trivial, but all of these aesthetic cues combine to form Apple's brand identity. Apple are ferociously protective of their brand identity, it's possibly their most valuable asset.

To make a car analogy (I know, it's tired), consider the double-kidney grille that features on the nose of every BMW. You could remove every BMW badge from the car, but as long as that grille is present any observer could identify that car as a BMW at a glance. That recognition is crucial to the value of the brand. If another manufacturer were to feature that grille in their design, BMW would be rightly miffed.

lifethroughalens

April 20, 2011, 5:59 pm

I agree with EvilPaul - "These kinds of lawsuits are more about trading patent licenses or doing deals, and less about protecting Intellectual Property." And I have no idea what the real back story to this news is.

Whilst I understand and respect the whole point of the patent system, to protect / benefit the individual or group of people who had the skill to invent, it is true to say that the system now needs a massive overhaul, especially in the tech industry. There are probably now more patent trolls buying up patents solely to suppress technology than there are to benefit from its development. Although, I suspect that this has long been the case, just take the oil industry for example.

I think that there should be a use it or lose it approach to granted IP patents and they should have a much shorter shelf-life (5 years for the tech industry?) and much stricter criteria for granting patents in the first place. When, by requirement of design and function, a certain design become so ubiquitous and universally accepted by the public as being the bench mark, patents should not be allowed to get in the way of further development and progress after a time limit has passed. (TV design or Touch screen hardware is a good example as Gordon made).

By this stage the initial inventors (or the company they work for) should have had plenty of time to become very rich exploiting their captive market, and start developing a new product.

I know there are a million other points in this debate - but I think one thing most people will agree on, it can't carry on like it is now, can it?

Enigma

April 20, 2011, 10:37 pm

Talking of fear, try this:

"iPhone keeps record of everywhere you go

"Privacy fears raised as researchers reveal file on iPhone that stores location coordinates and timestamps of owner's movements"

@ http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/apr/20/iphone-tracking-prompts-privacy-fears

Gordon394

April 21, 2011, 5:59 am

You're spot on. Patent and pedantic can't be interchangeable.

Regarding links, they are all actually correct. Unfortunately the new site still has to port of lot of content over. Once this is correct the links will become live. It's equally frustrating for me.

Gordon394

April 21, 2011, 6:01 am

Agreed, but I think that the design of a car has far more scope for unique design elements than a 3.5/4in touchscreen slab. Patenting angles or finishes is hugely problematic.

Gordon394

April 21, 2011, 6:09 am

@Enigma saw this, but the interesting aspect since we agreed to it. The epic T&Cs we all skip and sign up to give Apple full scope to do this. So is it Apple's fault for exploiting what we inevitably fail to read or ours for not reading the T&Cs fully and potentially daring to click 'no'?

As ever, probably a bit of both...

Gordon394

April 21, 2011, 6:10 am

@all hopefully you'll find the new page positioning better for features? I certainly prefer it to the previous position just above podcasts.

Chris

April 21, 2011, 6:25 pm

Very true, but I'm not referring to any one design detail here, but rather all of these details in combination. I chose the car analogy *because* it's an obvious one. IMHO Samsung have incorporated more Apple-esque visual cues in their designs than any other manufacturer. I've seen it alluded to in a number of Galaxy S reviews, and possibly even TR's own review. If the site's search function were able to find it I might have been able to verify that...

Chris

April 21, 2011, 6:27 pm

Much better, thanks. I hope you did that based on more than just my suggestion. I'm no web designer!

Chris

April 21, 2011, 6:33 pm

Oh, sorry forgot to mention. It's important to make the distinction between design patents intended to protect brand identity and other types of patents that might exist to protect technological innovations. Design patents are all about patenting angles and finishes.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_patent

BTW, Apple just received 18 patents, including the iPhone 4 design patent. Conincidence?

http://www.tuaw.com/2011/04/20/apple-awarded-iphone-4-design-patent/

ffrankmccaffery

April 21, 2011, 9:43 pm

You only have to take a glance at the Samsung TV recently reviewed on here to know that this company has a design team that's capable of some stunning creations of their own. Why they feel that they have to copy the conservative and superficial designs of a rival I don't understand. Than again Samsung has a hard time understanding itself.

Drazisaurus

April 24, 2011, 12:23 am

I love the the microsoft courier. Such a shame they canned it.

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