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.