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. icon
    Mike (profile), 15 Jan 2007 @ 12:46am

    Re: Re: Re: Typical socialist...

    If that's the case, then I welcome you to try. So far, you haven't gotten past asserting that I am wrong.

    Hmm. I think most people can read the point for point refutation of your ideas. I didn't assert that you were wrong. I showed why you were.

    You say idiotic things like that your position is one of supporting the free market... but that's obviously wrong-- in a free market situation, Apple could lock up its products for more than the 20 years that patents allow.

    I'm curious how a "patent" is a part of the free market? A contract would be. But, a patent is a gov't granted monopoly. It's protectionism, which is exactly what the free market is designed to get rid of. Please explain to me how a patent can possibly be a free market concept.

    Bottom line is, you are advocating that others should be allowed to copy the original works of innovators... that is theft, no two ways about it. And that is NOT fostering innovation.

    No. I am not advocating that at all (you really should read what I write). I advocate that companies focus on innovating and selling in the market, rather than fostering protectionist policies and attitudes that hurt everyone.

    As for your claim its theft "no two ways about it" that's just wrong. It's not theft. It may be infringement, but infringement is quite different from theft -- and even the Supreme Court acknowledged that.

    For it to be theft, something needs to have been lost. It's quite different, and claiming it's theft is simply wrong.

    You then say infringement is not fostering innovatoin, but you don't explain why. I already explained my position as to why protectionism hinders innovation, but there are plenty of examples I can roll out if you don't believe it. Where's your support for the statement?

    IF you think you are a capitalist, you are one very confused person.

    Yes, how dare I support letting the market set the price. While you support gov't granted monopolies. Who's the capitalist?

    Presume there was no government to enforce patents. And I spent a couple decades inventing a car engine that was about 10 times more efficient than current engines. I sell this engine only under contract that prevents any buyer from duplicating the technology.


    You go and steal one of my customers cars. Since you don't have a contract with me, you copy the technology and start selling it cheap.


    Why not sell it cheap? It cost you nothing to invent, you didn't sink time into innovation, you just copied the product.

    Well, first of all, you assume that it's so easy to copy. That may or may not be the case. But assuming it is easy to copy, the originator still has quite a head start, and can do much more. First of all, they have the brand name recognition from being the first to do all the work, and that's not easy to compete with. Second, since they put so much time, effort and money into the development, it's quite likely that they understand it a hell of a lot better than some copycat, and thus, they'll be able to keep making the necessary improvements to keep there's the best.

    This is what happens in the market already. BMW makes fantastic cars. Really solid machines. In fact, they're called "the ultimate driving machine." By your reasoning, Hyundai could just start making cars just like BMWs and selling them cheaply.

    However, you're wrong. First of all, it's not that easy to just copy the BMW. Second, there's plenty of expense in building cars to such a level, so they wouldn't be able to price it so cheaply after all. Third, by the time Hyundai had the BMW to take apart, BMW is already working on their next generation offering. Fourth, even if Hyundai could make a perfect replica of a BMW many people wouldn't buy it because they don't trust Hyundai's reputation to BMW's.

    In other words, just being able to copy the technology has nothing to do with the larger issue.

    I think a large part of the problem is that you don't seem to understand the concept of fixed and variable costs. The fixed cost of development is a sunk cost. It doesn't play into the pricing part of the equation. Pricing is eventually dependent on marginal cost, which doesn't care about the R&D costs. I would suggest that it might help this conversation if you had a better grasp of economics.

    What I'm saying is that doing so is theft. You think that doing so will spur me to be more innovative because now I don't have protection for my invention... but that's the cry of the socialist who thinks innovators are an endless fount of free goodies.

    Do you have a point here or are you just calling me names. I have clearly pointed out why (1) what you describe is not theft in any sense of the word (based on law or common sense). I have clearly pointed out why the position is free market-based, not socialist. Yet you insist that both are true. What's your reasoning? That both are true. Sorry, not convincing...

    As for the claim that innovators are an endless fount of free goodies, I did not make that claim (and I'd suggest you brush up your reading comprehension skills if that's what you thought I said). I am saying that innovation is a continuous process. There's a lot of history to support that, and I'm surprised you seem to be denying it. Economic progress is based on that concept. In fact, about the only ones who disagree with that are some socialists, who believe that economics and innovation is a zero sum game -- and you clearly don't think that you're a socialist, so perhaps you need to check your economics again.

    Reality is that in such a hypothetical I have two choices-- retire and leave the market to the theives like you... or go kill you and destroy your factory and reclaim what I stole.

    Hmm. That's a very limited two choices. You have many more than that. You can continue to win in the marketplace by building up your brand value and continuing to out innovate the competing product. That's a sound strategy that helps everyone do better. I'm surprised it didn't occur to a capitalist such as yourself.

    Either of these are moral choices.

    Ahhhhh! Why didn't you say so? You're arguing morals. Morals and economics are two separate issues. I'm arguing economics -- and the end result is that if everyone does better due to the economics, the moral issues never come into play. Falling back on moral arguments before the economics are concluded confuses the issue. It explains why you're confused.

    The bottom line is-- you can't support innovation by saying that people have a right to steal others work.

    That's not the bottom line, and I never said you support innovation by letting people *steal*. So, you haven't proven much. You set up a straw man that I didn't say and then knocked it down. I'm not quite sure what you proved, but good for you.

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