Apple may have won, but software patents are still evil

In one of the biggest court decisions in recent memory for a technology giant, Samsung on Friday lost a billion-dollar patent-infringement case launched by Apple over the design and functionality of the mobile-handset maker’s smartphones. We’ve written about the implications of this ruling for both companies, and where the case stands to go from here, but when you step back from the specifics of this decision itself, it becomes increasingly obvious that we are all losers in this kind of case — because software and design patents are inherently bad, not just for the technology industry but arguably for society as a whole. Apple’s win may satisfy its fans, and Samsung may be able to recover from the ruling, but that doesn’t make it right.

As my colleague Jeff Roberts has reported, this case was launched by Apple against Samsung last year, based on what Apple said was Samsung’s wilful infringement of software-related “utility” patents and four design-related patents it holds for the iPhone and iPad. According to Apple, the company’s smartphones — including the Nexus S, Epic 4G and Galaxy S 4G — copied elements of the design and functionality of Apple’s iPhone models, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab copied design and functional aspects of the iPad. In its statement of claim, which contained drawings that jurors relied on to decide the case, Apple said:

“Rather than innovate and develop its own technology and a unique Samsung style for its smart phone products and computer tablets, Samsung chose to copy Apple’s technology, user interface and innovative style in these infringing products.”

Did Apple really suffer because of another phone’s shape?

From a legal point of view, there appear to be a number of questionable factors involved in the jurors’ decision in this case, at least according to Groklaw, including a debate over whether the jury actually understood the specifics of what they were being asked to do, and whether they ignored certain aspects of the case in their desire to penalize Samsung. That could lead to the case being successfully appealed, but even if it isn’t, or if the appeal fails, the Apple-Samsung decision adds even more weight to the argument that software and design patents are evil and that the entire patent process is badly flawed — if not broken.

As part of the case, Apple obviously argued that it suffered irreparable harm from Samsung’s alleged copying of its design and functionality. But has it really suffered competitively? It’s hard to see how, considering the company is the world’s most valuable publicly-traded entity, with a market value of over $600 billion, and its mobile products are the market leaders in almost every category. How much more successful could it possibly be? And now, the legal ruling gives it even greater power to beat up on Google and Android — is that really a win for the technology industry or for society as a whole? It’s difficult to see how (and let’s not forget that Apple doesn’t need software patents to protect it from knock-offs — it has trademarks, trade dress and a series of other legal tools that will do that too).

Defenders of the case, and of patent laws in general, would likely argue that it doesn’t matter how large or successful Apple is: the point is that Samsung did something wrong. But what exactly do we mean by this statement? Two of the design patents involved in the case describe the way in which the iPhone is rounded at the corners and flat on the top, and another refers to the way that icons appear on the screen. Among the utility patents involved are those related to the “bounce back” or “rubber band” feature in some of Apple’s apps — in which the screen rebounds after the user pulls it in one direction or another — and to the “pinch to zoom” functionality used for images.

One designer said that the pinch-too-zoom gesture has become so ubiquitous for mobile devices and apps of all kinds that it is like claiming ownership over the idea of a circular steering wheel. Would we be better off if one company controlled the rights to the steering wheel and could charge huge sums to all manufacturers for using that design element? Probably not. But Apple could now do this with pinch-to-zoom, as well as other design and utility features, giving it an even bigger lock on the mobile device business than it already has — despite the fact that there is evidence that similar gestures existed before Apple patented them.

Update: Nilay Patel at The Verge notes that none of the patents in the Apple-Samsung case specifically refers to the pinch-to-zoom process, although several cover related multi-touch elements of the interface and one covers the tap-to-zoom gesture.

Software patents are nuclear weapons, not defences

Even if you accept that Apple did something unique and revolutionary with the zoom feature that deserves to be protected by the full force of the law, should it have the same rights to a series of icons that are lined up in a specific way on a mobile device? Or to the fact that its device has a rounded screen, or that a window which pops up on top of another window fades away automatically over time? Or the fact that one of its iPhone icons happens to look like a gear, and another looks like a pad of paper? These are the kinds of things software and design patents can refer to.

The fact that software patents can apply to such obvious-looking or even trivial applications of design and usability is why some have described them as evil, and “a cancer” on the economy and society in general. Others have warned for several years about the coming of a software patent “apocalypse” created by multibillion-dollar technology giants accumulating software patents. And in the end, these cases do little to promote any kind of useful innovation — instead, they just tie up the courts and give some companies a nuclear arsenal they can use to attack competitors.

Even some judges — such as the one who recently ended Apple’s patent lawsuit against Google-owned Motorola — have questioned whether certain industries that already experience plenty of innovation (such as the mobile phone business) need to be protected by patents at all, including software and design patents. And research by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has shown that software patents have provided little or no net social benefit over the past decade, despite billions in lawsuits and various legal victories.

In the end, the important question isn’t whether Apple was right to sue Samsung, or whether the Korean manufacturer directly copied elements of Apple’s design for its phones — the question should be what is gained by allowing companies to launch multibillion-dollar cases involving the shape of icons or the swiping motion that users employ to switch pages.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Stefan