iPhone, uCopy, iSue

Eminently sane Economist piece about the Apple v Samsung patent case.

It is useful to recall why patents exist. The system was established as a trade-off that provides a public benefit: the state agrees to grant a limited monopoly to an inventor in return for disclosing how the technology works. To qualify, an innovation must be novel, useful and non-obvious, which earns the inventor 20 years of exclusivity. “Design patents”, which cover appearances and are granted after a simpler review process, are valid for 14 years.

The dispute between Apple and Samsung is less over how the devices work and more over their look and feel. At issue are features like the ability to zoom into an image with a double finger tap, pinching gestures, and the visual “rubber band” effect when you scroll to the end of a page. The case even extends to whether the device and its on-screen icons are allowed to have rounded corners. To be sure, some of these things were terrific improvements over what existed before the iPhone’s arrival, but to award a monopoly right to finger gestures and rounded rectangles is to stretch the definition of “novel” and “non-obvious” to breaking-point.

A proliferation of patents harms the public in three ways. First, it means that technology companies will compete more at the courtroom than in the marketplace—precisely what seems to be happening. Second, it hampers follow-on improvements by firms that implement an existing technology but build upon it as well. Third, it fuels many of the American patent system’s broader problems, such as patent trolls (speculative lawsuits by patent-holders who have no intention of actually making anything); defensive patenting (acquiring patents mainly to pre-empt the risk of litigation, which raises business costs); and “innovation gridlock” (the difficulty of combining multiple technologies to create a single new product because too many small patents are spread among too many players).

Some basic reforms would alleviate many of the problems exemplified by the iPhone lawsuit. The existing criteria for a patent should be applied with greater vigour. Specialised courts for patent disputes should be established, with technically minded judges in charge: the inflated patent-damage awards of recent years are largely the result of jury trials. And if patents are infringed, judges should favour monetary penalties over injunctions that ban the sale of offending products and thereby reduce consumer choice.

And it’s nuts letting this stuff go to jury trial.