Does The iPhone Need Patents?

from the questions,-questions dept

A bunch of folks have noted that Steve Jobs seemed mighty excited about the 200 or so patents Apple has filed around some of the technology involved in the iPhone (or whatever it's going to be called). A few have asked my opinion on the patents -- but not knowing what the patents are on, it's tough to have that much of an opinion on them specifically. However, Tim Lee points us to a blog post from someone who claims that the iPhone shows why patents are necessary, since "The investment necessary to develop a radically new interface like Multi-touch requires that Apple have a way to protect that investment. If Nokia, Sony, and Motorola could all simply copy it in their new phones, why would Apple even bother?" A few others have suggested the same sort of thing, but those two statements together actually seem to contradict each other. If it was so expensive to develop the multi-touch technology (which isn't new at all and similar technology has been demonstrated publicly in the past), then how would those other companies be able to just copy it? If it's so easy to copy, then it shouldn't have cost that much to develop.

Either way, Tim's response at the Tech Liberation Front is well worth reading, as he points out how silly that argument really is, noting that if the technology works as well as the demo, then Apple is going to make a ton of money with or without patents -- because people will buy the phone. In other words, the market is what gives Apple the incentives to develop these technologies, not patents. As Tim says: "Blafkin seems to believe that Nokia, Sony, and Motorola have a magical technology copying machine that can instantaneously duplicate Apple's innovations. But cloning a breakthrough new user interface is actually quite difficult. Just ask Microsoft, which spent six years trying to clone the Macintosh interface in the late 1980s.... Even if Nokia does a lot better than Microsoft and manages to clone the iPhone interface in, say, 2 years, that still means that they'll be perpetually 2 years behind. Why would consumers buy a knockoff of the 2007 iPhone from Nokia when they can buy the 2009 version from Apple?" That last point is key. The way to compete isn't by catching up and "copying" someone else, but to continuously innovate. Then, even if someone else catches up, you're still ahead -- and, if anyone can keep on coming up with new innovations, it appears to be Apple. So, even without patent protection, Apple would make more than enough money to recoup their development costs. But, the downside is that Apple doesn't need to keep up the same pace of innovation now. Others won't be able to compete and push Apple to innovate as fast because Apple can block them with patents. At the same time, those who don't want to live by Apple's rules (Cingular-only, 2 year contracts, no 3G, no ability to develop additional apps, no VoIP, etc.) but want a phone with a similar design will be out of luck. That's bad for innovation and bad for the economy.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Jan 2007 @ 4:24pm

    Re: Re: are patents needed?

    The little guy getting screwed isn't a myth. I did a quick search and here is just 1 example. That being said, I do think your basic point is worth examining: Does a benefit to society as a whole outweigh the benefits of an individual?

    Here is the example of the little guy getting screwed that I found:

    Chasteen's case involved a patent he was awarded for a fuel-injection system for snowmobiles in the late 1980s. He and his partner approached Polaris Industries of Roseau, Minnesota, about a deal. "When we first met with their head engineer, he told us we had made a massive leap in technology," says Chasteen, 47. Initially, Polaris wanted to buy Chasteen's system outright. But the inventor didn't want to sell. Eventually, Polaris verbally agreed to have Chasteen supply them with his engines. After about a year of development, Polaris pulled the plug, claiming it was going to hold off on selling fuel-injected snowmobiles.

    Chasteen was dumb-founded when, a short time later, Polaris introduced a fuel-injected snowmobile. He immediately bought one and tore it apart . . . and found it used the very technology he had developed. "We were furious," Chasteen says. "They'd simply cloned ours." Chasteen decided to sue Polaris as well as Fuji Heavy Industries, which was supplying Polaris with the fuel-injection system.

    After almost 11 years, Chasteen finally got the justice - $70 million worth of it - he deserved. And his isn't an isolated case.

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