Apple's View On Patents Then And Now

from the times-change dept

For all the talk among patent system defenders about how patents are most necessary for young startup companies that need to grow, most tech startups couldn’t care much less about patents (other than as a bogus currency to increase their valuation in talking to VCs). Startups are focused on actually building a product and getting it out to the market. Instead, what we see time and time again is that it’s the big, more established companies that use patents to stifle startups, rather than the other way around. Startups innovate, while big companies litigate.

To make that point, we once highlighted two quotes from Microsoft execs at different times during the company’s existence:

Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel, 2007: “Protection for software patents and other intellectual property is essential to maintaining the incentives that encourage and underwrite technological breakthroughs. In every industry, patents provide the legal foundation for innovation. The ensuing legal disputes may be messy, but protection is no less necessary, even so.”

Bill Gates, Microsoft CEO, 1991: “If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today… A future start-up with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose.”

Now, perhaps, we have a similar situation with Apple. Most of you have heard Apple’s Tim Cook make his recent comments about Apple patents:

We like competition–as long as our competitors don’t rip off our IP. And we’re going to go after anyone who does. I’m not talking about any particular company, but we are ready to suit up and go against anyone. We will not stand for having our IP ripped off, and we will use every weapon at our disposal….

Well, David Levine has a nice quote from Steve Wozniak’s autobiography:

“It’s funny, I think back on it now — the Apple II would turn out to be one of the most successful products of all time. But we had no copyrights or patents at all back then. No secrets. We were just showing it to everybody.”

While the comments on that post do note that Apple did, in fact, end up getting patents on the Apple II, reading stories on the early days of Apple make it pretty clear what Wozniak meant. The company was incredibly open in sharing ideas and concepts, and wasn’t going around threatening others for ripping off its IP (that did come later… especially with the graphical user interface, which Jobs himself admitted “ripping off” from Xerox… which had “ripped it off” already from SRI). It’s really only when you’re afraid of competing in the marketplace that you rely on patents. When you’re young and innovative you focus on the possibilities and opportunities in front of you, rather than on ways to block others from innovating.

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Companies: apple

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Comments on “Apple's View On Patents Then And Now”

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Nelson Cruz says:

Yeah, lawyers keep insisting startups and small companies need patents to protect them from the big companies, but they forget that a company needs a few million dollars to back up the patent. If they cant afford to take it to court against the Microsofts and Apples of the world, the patent is close to useless. I read somewhere it usually costs about 500.000 to 1 million dollars, and can cost up to 4 million dollars with all the possible appeals. And it’s highly likely the big company will find some patents in it’s porfolio with which to counter-sue. Especially with the trend of patenting minor functionalities and features of the last decade.

This Apple vs Palm thing illustrates the other problem with this trend, in order for a company to add their own innovations they need to copy the old ones. The Palm Tre seems to infringe on a couple of patents related to scrolling with a finger on a touch screen (endgadget has a great analysis). However the iPhone itself infringes on Palm patents related to brightness controls, contact search with initials, conference call management and the whole phone application interface seems totally copied from a Palm patent. Innovative or not, if Palm and others made full use of their patents, the iPhone probably wouldn’t even exist! Apple didn’t invent the PDA Phone, it just made a better one, and had to copy a lot of “old” stuff in the process. Apple’s message however, like Disney, seems to be: we can imitate whoever we want, but don’t you dare imitate us!

Anonymous Coward says:

The thing about Apple is that they really don’t need patents. Apple keeps innovating with all it’s products, and they gave excellent quality too, which means the price stays pretty high. (compare GB/$ on ipods to any other brand, or their computers to others of comparable specs) After something new comes out, other companies try to copy it and reduce the price, always resulting in a lower-quality product. The iPod is what made mp3 players mainstream, and tons of other companies started to produce mp3 players with similar interfaces, but the iPod has stayed at the top. When the iphone was released it was one-of a kind in the phone market, and pretty much every phone manufacturer has created a touch screen phone/mp3/video player with similar design goals, but none has surpassed the iphone, at least in market share. Even with apple’s computers, if you look at updates other laptop makers have made to their lines since the new macbook came out, many of them have shifted towards more clean, minimalist designs. Apple should welcome other companies to copy it’s products, because this just emphasizes the point that Apple’s product will still always be better.

Lickity Split says:

Re: Competition? Nah...

You realize that apple has 10% market share right? so they clearly have not done a very good job at getting rid of competition. But your point is idiotic to begin with.

Apple started with the iPod when there was significant competition in the mp3 player world. They just did a MUCH better job then anyone else and beat the competition by giving consumers what they wanted. But you go ahead with your bad self and keep claiming Apple is evil. Hey how’s your Zune doing? What you have an iPod?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“I never cease to be amazed at the almost “Moses coming down the mountain” awe that Techdirt unfailingly exhibits regarding Mr. Levine’s musings.”

Jealous, or easily amazed? I’m not sure I understand your point.

Mike, I think he’s either saying that you shouldn’t believe that Steve W. actually said that, or making fun of you for calling Mr. Levine’s quote “nice.” I’m not really sure.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I never cease to be amazed at the almost “Moses coming down the mountain” awe that Techdirt unfailingly exhibits regarding Mr. Levine’s musings.

Yet another driveby insult with no substance from MLS. You’re on a roll today.

Of course, what MLS shows off in his failed reading comprehension is that we didn’t show any awe towards Levine in this post at all. We simply linked to him because he pointed us to the quote. Levine didn’t add any significant commentary at all to the quote, so we didn’t discuss anything that Levine said here at all.

But, you know, MLS isn’t a big fan of actually going on facts. I’m sure his clients must love that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Perhaps you missed…

“Do we want people to make products or engage in legal shenanigans? Although who knows…maybe the legal minds invested in patent law would be out running Ponzi games if they weren’t so busy figuring out how to steal other people’s inventions.”

Come to think of it…you are right. This adds no significant commentary to the quote. It is merely yet another useless rant by Mr. Levine.

Nick (profile) says:

Young innovators don’t want or feel they need patents because that would stifle them at their early stages, and their challenge is to innovate despite others’ patents and without their own patents . But as a company grows and you get boards of directors and lawyers involved, the lawyers want to validate their practice of predatory suits, so of course they will say IP defense is important.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Patents and small companies

Extreme views again – “pegging” at one limit or the other!
Large entity patents as they exist – you are right. Small entity patents (as the Constitution intended), wrong! The purpose of the patent system is to encourage innovation – done properly, it worked then, and could work now – it is the perversion of the system that is bad, not the underlying concept of the Constitution.

Tim Geek says:

I’d like to see a cite for where Steve Jobs said Apple “ripped off” Xerox PARC. That would appear to be inconsistent with the history of Lisa/Macintosh development (whose GUI was more powerful than Xerox’s — unless you consider nonoverlapping windows a killer feature) and with Apple’s buying a license to Xerox’s interface. (A license which made Xerox more money than their attempt at a personal computer, the Star, ever did — not much of a fiscal rip-off there…)

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