With the Apple/Samsung case finishing up, James Allworth, over at HBR, has an excellent post wondering why it matters if one company copies from another
? A few years ago, we wrote about a book that pointed out that copying
and then innovating on the copies is a perfectly reasonable and important business strategy. Allworth points to a new book (one I've been looking forward to for a while) by Chris Sprigman and Kal Raustiala (who we've quoted numerous times
) called The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation
He then takes the lessons of that book and applies it to the Apple/Samsung fight, noting that even if we assume they were imitating each other, that seems to have only encouraged further innovation, not less:
If you go back to the mid-1990s, there was their famous "look and feel" lawsuit against Microsoft. Apple's case there was eerily similar to the one they're running today: "we innovated in creating the graphical user interface; Microsoft copied us; if our competitors simply copy us, it's impossible for us to keep innovating." Apple ended up losing the case.
But it's what happened next that's really fascinating.
Apple didn't stop innovating at all. Instead: they came out with the iMac. Then OS X ("Redmond, start your photocopiers"). Then the iPod. Then the iPhone. And now, most recently, the iPad. Given the underlying reason that Apple has been bringing these cases to court was to enable them to continue to innovate, it's hard not to ask: if copying stops innovation, why didn't Apple stop innovating last time they were copied? Being copied didn't stop or slow their ability to innovate at all. If anything, it only seemed to accelerate it. Apple wasn't able to rest on its laurels; to return to profitability, and to take the mantle they hold today of one of the technology industry's largest companies, they had to innovate as fast as they could.
It's the same story we've been explaining for years. History and tons of studies have shown over and over and over again that competition drives innovation
, because innovation is an ongoing process
. Thus, when others can copy you, that actually accelerates innovation by giving the original incentives to stay ahead in the marketplace, and develop the next great thing. Research has also shown that it's not as easy
as you think to "just copy" because you only see the superficial aspects to copy, rather than having the deeper understanding of what works and what doesn't that a market leader often gains.
In fact, when you understand that, you realize that patents can actually slow down innovation by letting a company rest on its laurels, and not have to continue to rapidly innovate. Other companies can't build on what they did first, and so they don't have the same incentives to continue to advance the market forward. And the Apple/Samsung fight in the market appears to support that.
If Apple ends up winning this case against Samsung — and either stops Samsung from releasing their phones and tablets to the market, or charges them a hefty license fee to do so — does anyone really believe that the market will suddenly become more innovative, or that devices will suddenly become more affordable? Similarly, if Samsung wins, do you really believe that Apple will suddenly slow its aggressive development of the iPhone and iPad? It's certainly not what happened last time they lost one of these cases.
Now, if you're with me so far, then I don't think it's a leap to suggest that having these companies duke it out in court over "who might have copied who" is counterproductive. All these lawsuits flying around suggest that everyone is already copying each other, anyway. A better solution? Let's have these companies solely focused on duking it out in the marketplace — where consumers, not courtrooms, make the decisions about innovation. In such a world, the best defense against copying isn't lawsuits, but rather, to innovate at such a rate that your competition can't copy you fast enough. That, to me, sounds like an ideal situation not just for consumers — but for the real innovators, too.