When a federal court jury found late Friday that Samsung knowingly and willfully copied seven of Apple's design patents relating to the iPad, iPhone, and iOS, Apple fans cheered. The ruling came after just two days of deliberations, signaling lack of doubt in jurors' minds as to Samsung's guilt. Android aficionados began fretting that the Apple victory would create a chilling effect on the Android platform, which far outsells the iPhone in the smartphone market but has only a minor presence in the iPad-dominated tablet market.
That fretting is unnecessary. The verdict is good not just for Apple, but for Samsung and the whole Android ecosystem. Most of the anguish centers around a claim that somehow Apple's ability to successfully defend its design patents will stifle innovation.
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I'm sorry, but copying someone else's work is the opposite of innovation. Now, Samsung will have to innovate on the design end, which should lead to more innovation. And Samsung is very capable of innovating when it chooses to do so, as demonstrated by its Galaxy Note "phablet" smartphone/tablet hybrid, Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, and Galaxy S III smartphone.
All three of those innovative devices were designed after the year-long legal wrangling over design patents began -- which shows, unfortunately, that Samsung found it easier to copy products such as the Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy S II, and Galaxy Tab (all ruled as infringing Apple's design patents) than to be an innovation leader.
Google even warned Samsung that its designs were likely to violate Apple's design patents, yet Samsung proceeded with them. To add insult to injury, Samsung in February 2011 announced the Galaxy Tab 10.1, then redesigned it in March 2011 to be more like the iPad 2 after Apple unveiled the iPad 2. Redesigning a product so soon after its orginal announcement is a rare evenrt, and doing so after the main competitor's new design is unveiled is surely no coincidence.
For centuries, wannabies have copied and produced knockoffs of furniture, clothes, medicines, foodstuffs, and brand logos. It's hardly a phenomenon unique to the technology industry. Design patents (and, in the case of logos, design trademarks) were invented to prevent copiers from fooling customers into buying the knockoff instead of the genuine article.
All those who decry how patents squash innovation should remember that they provide the economic incentive and certainty that funds innovation in the first place. Has the patent system gotten out of control? Yes. But not in this case.
Design patents have a very useful public purpose, unlike some of the newer patent categories such as business process patents that allow things like one-click online shopping carts and gene sequences. There are also too many patents granted to obvious things such as shopping-cart icons. Patents are supposed to be for what is nonobvious -- that is, true innovations.
Remember that the Apple-Samsung case is mainly about design patents, not designs. Despite some people's fears, Apple can't just claim someone is copying its designs and sue to stop it. The designs have to be accepted as patentable, meaning they are unique and nonobvious design innovations.