Patent wars gone wild: From silly to sleazy

While Apple and Samsung fight for future of mobile devices, other copyright trolls wage an X-rated battle on innocent users

If I were more technically adept, I'd present this post as a split-screen video: On one side, we'd see a San Jose, Calif., courtroom, where Apple and Samsung throw rhetorical bombshells at each other as they fight for the soul of the mobile revolution. On the other, we'd see a Tucson, Ariz., nail salon where a young mother of two tells reporters she is being strong-armed by lawyers for pornographic movie producers who claim she pirated their film.

These are stories that should never have seen the light of day. The patent and copyright system was designed to foster innovation and protect honest entrepreneurs from unprincipled copycats; instead it's becoming a mechanism to stifle innovation, enrich lawyers, and bog down the court system. Witness these two legal actions, Apple vs. Samsung and the rise of porn trolls, putting to rest any doubt that the patent system is badly broken.

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On the split screen you'd see Samsung, a company with a history of solid technological innovation, potentially losing its case and taking the Android ecosystem, and continued competition in the mobile market, down with it. On the other screen, you'd witness a sleazeball lawyer using tactics that smack of extortion as he claims that Jenny Phan downloaded pirated porn flicks on her home computer. To make the charge go away, he has said she would have to pay $3,500. Phan is not alone; more than 250,000 people have been hit with similar suits, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Apple didn't invent the rectangle

It's one thing when someone copies an integrated circuit, the design of a camera lens, or a major chunk of code. But patent and copyright law gets very weird when we start talking about issues such as "look and feel."

Among many other claims, Apple says that Samsung copied the look of the iPhone -- you know, a rectangular case and a screen that's much larger than the ones in old-style cellphones and pagers. In his opening statement, Samsung's lawyer Charles Verhoeven showed mobiles predating the iPhone, and they all had large rectangular screens. "Apple didn't invent that," he said. "That was already out there."

Even more interesting is the photo you see below. It's a slide that the judge ruled inadmissible in the trial, at which point Samsung took the very unusual step of sending the suppressed evidence to reporters. (I've covered quite a few trials and have never seen an attorney stick it to a judge in such an audacious way.)

Samsung designs in development before the iPhone

What you see is a series of designs for phones that predated the 2007 launch of the iPhone. Those phones (the ones that were actually built) weren't close to the capabilities of the iPhone, but they certainly look similar. As Verhoeven told the jury, the entire industry -- not just Samsung or Apple -- had figured out that people were going to watch videos and such on their phones and that small screens no longer made any sense.

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