Commerce Dept: Steve Jobs Had Patents, Steve Jobs Made Cool Things; Thus Patents Are Great

from the seriously? dept

Yesterday, I wrote about the ridiculousness of the Department of Commerce/US Patent and Trademark Office “study” that claimed to show how many “jobs” there were in “IP-intensive” industries. Among the many problems with the report was how it defined IP-intensive industries, with the top one on the list being…. grocery stores. In fact, most of the “top employers” on the list are industries that — while they may find IP laws useful to stop consumer confusion over trademarks — are not at all dependent on intellectual property laws to exist. In fact, the only one of the “top” industries that you might normally think of as being “IP-intensive” was “computer systems and designs,” which includes many of the companies and individuals who have been fighting hard against the expansion of copyright and patent laws.

And yet, the entertainment industry and government officials have been trotting out the massive “jobs” count in this report as proof that we need expansionist IP laws and agreements like SOPA and ACTA.

As I mentioned in the post yesterday, back before this report came out, the White House had reached out to say that they knew I was interested in this kind of information, and asked if I’d like to interview the “economic experts” behind the report. I said I’d love to interview their experts. I was passed along to a Department of Commerce spokesperson, who asked me to pre-submit questions before I could interview the “economic experts.” I always find that sort of setup to be a little ridiculous. Either let me interview the people, or don’t. Don’t make me pre-submit questions.

Either way, I was in the middle of a heavy travel schedule, and it took me a few weeks to have the time to go through the report more carefully, and come up with a list of questions, which I eventually sent. The spokesperson seemed confused that I would still be interested in this report, even as it was being used repeatedly by entertainment industry execs and government officials as justification for bad policies. After I followed up a few times, I was told yesterday morning that they were “unable to accommodate an interview” (remember, they had reached out to me first), but provided me with the following “statement.”

All evidence suggests that patents continue to drive innovation in technology. At the time of his death, innovator Steve Jobs had more than 300 patents. Companies such as Apple have made transformative changes in our lives, made possible by massive investments made by intellectual property. But while such companies develop brand-new technologies and services, they also perform incremental innovation. Thus, IP conflicts arise as the byproducts of a very healthy overall innovation environment. The tech industry is characterized by extremely sharp drops in costs over time, extremely strong increases in performance, and multiple changes in market leads, with different companies leading at different points in time. That tremendously competitive marketplace is a sign of the critical role IP rights play in driving technology companies to invest, compete, create jobs, and drive exports.

On methodological question:

The IP report focused on identifying “IP-intensive industries and examining their characteristics and contributions to the overall economy.” One measure of the contribution of these industries to the overall economy is the number of jobs in these industries; other measures we looked at are value-added; wages earned by workers in these industries; and exports.

As I said yesterday, this statement is so ridiculous that I emailed the spokesperson back and said that, while a statement like this one is a goldmine from the perspective of being able to write a story about just how clueless the Commerce Department is, I’d much prefer a substantive discussion in which they respond to the various criticisms and concerns about the report and the methodology. I pointed out that the statements above do not respond to the criticism, and instead appear to suggest that they don’t have a substantive response to that criticism at all. And thus I hoped they would reconsider and actually respond to the questions.

Instead, they seem to double down on the exact things that sparked the initial criticism of the report: they don’t even try to distinguish the fact that people get patents or copyrights from the question of whether or not those tools were needed for the innovation to occur. Instead, it’s just “well, Steve Jobs had a bunch of patents, Steve Jobs made cool gadgets, thus patents are good.” Correlation/causation fallacy, anyone? Of course, it’s even worse than that. They talk about the natural state of innovation (competition, driving prices down) and then make the leap to the claim that this proves “the critical role IP rights play in driving technology companies to invest, compete, create jobs and drive exports,” despite failing to mention how IP rights have anything whatsoever to do with any of those things.

As I told the Commerce Department, pointing to some correlation between Jobs having patents and Apple having cool products as proof that the patent system works is like standing on the deck of a sinking Titanic and saying that everything’s fine because at least part of the boat is still above water.

At this point, I can only conclude that the government knows it put out a ridiculously misleading report… or the people involved are so clueless that they honestly think that correlation between companies getting patents honestly means those patents “drives” the innovation in that technology, contrary to plenty of actual studies on the impact of patents on innovation.

We should demand better of our government.

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Comments on “Commerce Dept: Steve Jobs Had Patents, Steve Jobs Made Cool Things; Thus Patents Are Great”

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53 Comments
C. D. Daisey says:

Re: Re:

Hey, everybody knows Apple never invents anything (see Masnick posts ad nauseum).

And besides, ideas aren’t valuable, it’s their execution. Today’s OS X is exactly the same as Xerox’s Star UI.

Not that Apple’s execution could be any good, if you look at their history they hardly make a profit at all.

So why should they be allowed any patents — everybody knows Apple (and Steve Jobs) never invented anything! Nobody does!

Tim K (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Lol, you don’t actually read anything on this site do you? Mike has mentioned several times that Apple is a great innovator. He talks about how they take other products and makes them better, which is a good thing. They do create some stuff on their own, but a lot of what they do they pull from elsewhere and improve it. However, when someone tries to do the same with something Apple has, suddenly they are parasites who deserve to go out of business, even if it costs all of Apple’s money (referring to Jobs’ feelings about Android)

C. D. Daisey says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Evident your memory doesn’t go back even two weeks…

http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120530/02494519121/apple-ceo-when-others-violate-our-patents-theyre-copying-our-hard-work-when-we-violate-patents-system-is-broken.shtml

Kinda like, you know, how Apple “signed its name” to the graphical user interface developed at Xerox PARC? Or the mouse developed at SRI? Or multitouch browsing, developed by a bunch of other folks prior to the iPhone? Sure, Apple improved on all of these things, and many other things as well, but Apple is famous for taking the developments done elsewhere and merely putting a nice final consumer-friendly coat of paint on it. No doubt, this is an important step, but it’s ridiculous to pretend that Apple has come up with the various ideas it has and no one else could have possibly developed the same things. [Emphasis added.]

Masnick has the excuse that he was in elementary school during the events referred to above and is uninterested in learning anything beyond his prejudices. Is that your excuse?

Not an Electronic Rodent says:

One eyed men

Companies such as Apple have made transformative changes in our lives, made possible by massive investments made by intellectual property.

Apple… a history of building off other’s inventions (or “stealing” other’s ideas, depending on your viewpoint) and a present of huge amounts of patent litigation including occasionally those they appropriated the ideas from. Whatever you may think about the benefits or otherwise of the patent system it has to take a very special form of blindness (probably the lucrative form) to say such a thing about Apple and not at least wonder in passing what all those others they sue might have produced as well.

Beta (profile) says:

the square root of False

“At this point, I can only conclude that the government knows it put out a ridiculously misleading report… or the people involved are so clueless that they honestly think that correlation between companies getting patents honestly means those patents “drives” the innovation in that technology, contrary to plenty of actual studies on the impact of patents on innovation.”

I’d like to suggest a third possibility: they concocted a nice, puffy statement, associating the Department’s policy with some good things. That was their job. It was good copy, it scanned well; whether the report was accurate or misleading was not the point. The phrase “all evidence suggests…” is good prose, a solid first sentence, but evidence had nothing to do with the report.

I have learned the hard way that it’s not just the liars you have to watch out for, it’s the people who do not care whether what they’re saying is true or false.

bob (profile) says:

Where's your counter example?

Sure, the correlation between Apple’s cool products and their portfolio of patents is just a correlation, but if you’re going to get all huffy, it would help to have an actual counter-example.

For instance, you might say, “Gosh, look at all of the great new drugs and innovative products coming out of Somalia. They don’t have a working patent system or even a working government. Innovation is not held back in the least.”

Alas, the countries with the strictest IP laws are also the source of much of the innovation. The drug companies cluster in Switzerland, not Zimbabwe. The software companies cluster in Silicon Valley, not some Caribbean island with no patent office.

Even countries like China and India start getting more and more serious about patent law as they switch from simple copying to real research and development.

So why don’t you check out the patent office in Somalia. I’m sure they’ll say something you would like to hear.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Where's your counter example?

Switzerland became a pharma powerhouse before they had patent protection (The swiss were rather late to the game of patenting chemicals). Silicon Valley also built its core strength before the advent of software patents, and continues to have a strong knowledge-sharing culture.

Give me an example of a Zimbabwe becoming a technology power-house AFTER initiating strong IP laws.

Anonymous Coward says:

This story might be had Steve Jobs actually invented anything. NO he did not invent APPLE, no he didnt invent anything irelated. He didnt even come up with the ideas, he was just the man with the power to put those products on the shelves where consumers could reach them. I cant believe how stupid people have become, OMG its steve jobs the inventer of the iphone. In fact not one line of script not one piece of hardware, were actually invented by Mr Jobs. If you look at his life, you will see he stole used, and took advantage of people to make a name for himself.

Joshy says:

Lot of good Kodak’s patents did them and they had cool gadgets and market leading features.

No one ever asks would Apple or such be “MORE” successful if the patent laws were lessened. Just imagine all of the markets and features Apple could add to this world if they weren’t held back by petty patent laws.

It’s also well known that Apple will add more features or less features based on competition. So if their are weak patent laws Apple makes better products. But, if their are strong patent laws reducing competition Apple simply does a product refresh re-skinning the same product. Just look at how much innovation came to the Ipod line in response to the perceived threat of the Zune.

So does this mean Apple would be even more successful with better patent laws or less?

JEDIDIAH says:

Woz versus Jobs

That transformative effect comes from geeks building cool toys they want rather than crass salesmen trying to come up with something to sell. Necessity still is the mother of invention. People like Jobs do nothing but capitalize on the works of others.

In that regard, LESS patents are what should be argued for.

20 year monopolies on what can be re-invented harm the likes of Jobs as much as anyone else. Certainly people don’t want to acknowledge that fact but it’s very much the case.

JEDIDIAH says:

Where's your counter example?

Where’s my counter example? It’s Apple.

Apple first triggered the transformative effects that are attributed to it without the benefit or encouragement of patents (certainly without software and design patents).

Great artists don’t do it for the money.

That’s the great irony of holding Apple up as the example of why we should have patents.

JEDIDIAH says:

The great brain robbery.

You’re stealing from Steve Jobs even if you don’t use any of the information he disclosed while using only your own skill and labor to re-invent something he claims ownership of.

Our lax PTO ensures this will be the case.

It’s likely that at least one of my little shell scripts violates some Apple patent despite the fact that I’ve never read any Apple patents.

techflaws (profile) says:

Re:

“Apple is famous for taking the developments done elsewhere and merely putting a nice final consumer-friendly coat of paint on it.”

Does NOT say Apple does not invent, at all!

“No doubt, this is an important step, but it’s ridiculous to pretend that Apple has come up with the various ideas it has and no one else could have possibly developed the same things.”

Fixed your emphasis for you. What is your excuse for using a quote that does NOT support your point?

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