Apple v Samsung


IN THE closing years of the 19th century, Thomas Edison, the Steve Jobs of his day, became embroiled in a series of lengthy legal battles over a lucrative invention, the cinematograph.

These “patent wars” went on for more than a decade, until Edison joined forces with his former enemies to form the Motion Picture Patents Company, a cartel that won full licensing rights in 1908 for all film production and exhibition in the US. Victory, it seemed, was complete.

The patents under dispute at that time were for 35-millimetre film, hand-winding mechanisms and sprocket holes. This week’s billion-dollar victory in a Californian court for Apple over its smartphone competitor, Samsung, centred on such arcana as “pinch to zoom” and “slide to unlock”.

A Samsung spokesperson has observed that it was “unfortunate that patent law allows the patenting of rectangles with rounded corners”. But the chairman of the jury in the case has stated it was influenced by two key pieces of information: a memo from a senior executive that appeared to instruct designers to make Samsung’s products more closely resemble Apple’s iPhone; and minutes of a meeting between the company’s executives and representatives of Google, who were concerned Samsung was sailing too close to the wind.

The great patent wars of Edison’s day in the US were followed by a long period of peace when such conflicts were discouraged by government. Since the 1980s, though, patent wars have made a comeback. Apple, the world’s largest company, has been at the forefront of this wave of litigation, claiming sole rights to the word “pod”, the phrase “app store” and even the lower-case letter “i”. This aggressive posture can seem of a part with the control freakery instilled in the company by its late founder, Mr Jobs. However, it may ultimately prove counterproductive.

Perhaps Apple should consider the eventual outcome of Thomas Edison’s great victory. Within five years, the Motion Pictures Patent Company was defunct and the power centre of the American movie industry had moved permanently and irrevocably from the East Coast to the West. Apple is now on the record in stating that devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S3 are as good as, if not identical to, the iPhone. If that’s the case, some consumers may wonder why they are paying twice as much for the latter as for the former?

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