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The Apple/Samsung Judgment And Our Broken Patent System

If you own Apple stock, and I do indirectly via mutual funds, then the Apple/Samsung patent verdict (Fig. 1) in favor of Apple is one you may be cheering. If you happen to own an Android device, and I have several, then you might be lamenting the verdict against Samsung. Being in both camps, I felt that either way it went that it would be bad but this is more due to our broken patent and copyright system.

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Figure 1. Apple's iPad is in and Samsung's tablet is out.

There are quite a few including lawyers that will disagree with me although many will be patent lawyers. Many will point to the protection they provide and the income they deliver to the holders of the patents and copyrights. Unfortunately there are significantly more that will point to the significant costs and inequities that these cause.

I should also mention that my wife works in the pharmaceutical system. As the Apple/Samsung verdict shows, patents can have significant and costly effects in the electronics industry but it is actually peanuts compared to other industries like pharmaceuticals where a single patent can make or break a company.

I am not going to get into the details of the Apple/Samsung verdict. There are plenty of others going into minute detail on the trial, verdict and its affect on all of us. Likewise, I am going to sidestep the purpose and reasoning behind patents and copyrights because it is an area I am familiar with but by no means and expert in. I did start up a couple of video patent applications decades ago but never followed through because of money. They were not going to make any and it was too costly at the time.

What I do want to harp on is the impact of patents and copyrights in our industry. In particular, how our technology rarely encompasses a single item that can fall under patents or copyrights. Here the Apple/Samsung fight, and hundreds of similar legal wranglings, highlight the problem I have with these issues. The products that Samsung may have to pull from the shelves include less than half a dozen items that Apple sued over and most are relatively trivial and obvious.

Ok, the obviousness for many will be because they are now ubiquitous but they were not unique even when tablets and smartphones were a gleam in a designer's eye. The problem is that our electronic marvels incorporate thousands of patents and any one could be used to trash a successful product. This was rarely the case hundreds of years ago and is not the case when looking at patents in other industries like pharmaceuticals.

The duration of patents and especially copyrights has a major impact compared to even decades back. In theory, the reason for these legal exercises is to get technology and content into the public domain. That is not the case in practice as technology changes too quickly and content has such a duration now that you will be lucky to live long enough to see anything created today from moving into the public domain.

Monopolies and kings tend not to be a good idea in general even though there are ones that are productive and benevolent. It is unlikely that we will see major changes patents and copyrights any time soon so in the meantime the behemoths like Apple and Samsung will have to maintain massive patent portfolios as defensive mechanisms while using them as a weapon to maintain a monopoly.

In many ways, these legal gyrations are like lotteries. Those running it tout the benefits and the winners and everyone likes to play. In actuality, most lose out in the long run so it is a question of whether there is enough benefit from enjoying the play.

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