Wednesday, August 10, 2011

This Just In - Apple Sues Everyone on Earth!

"Apple Inc., makers of the Mac, iPhone, iPod, and iPad, announced today that they are suing everyone on Earth for infringement of their patent on various gestures including pinching or spreading fingers, rotating anything, touching anything with up to 10 fingers at a time, or sliding an index finger vertically or horizontally across any surface. Judges in Australia, Germany, and the United States have granted Apple an injunction barring individuals in those countries from using any of the gestures claimed by Apple. In a related suit Apple is suing the planet Earth itself for being round, claiming a trademark on circles in both Europe and the United States. Lawyers for the Earth countered that it is actually an 'oblate spheroid' and not a circle." - via Rooters News Service

I'm really disappointed in Apple these days due to the legal war they've declared on numerous other manufacturers - at last count Samsung, Motorla, HTC, JAY-tech, Kodak (which Apple lost) - and they're far from done. Apple has now won injunctions against Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 in two different courts, plus an injunction against German manufacturer JAY-tech. The local German court's decision applies to the entire European Union for some reason (even though local court decisions in many other matters don't appear to have such broad-reaching consequences).

First of all Apple should have enough confidence in its products and customer loyalty (I'm sure we've all met our share of adherents to the Cult of Apple) to compete in the marketplace. Preventing competitors from entering the market via lawsuits is dirty, underhanded, cowardly, and I doubt it's actually profitable in the end. I've worked for tech companies in the past that preferred to spend their war chest on litigation against competitors rather than pour it into R&D and actually improve their products and services. Think of the tons of cash Apple has blown on legal expenses pursuing these lawsuits in courts around the world! The shareholders would probably be angry if not for the fact that Apple's shares are overvalued - but as someone who got burned in the Dot.Bomb era (and especially with the current economic situation) that bubble is gonna burst. You'll also notice that Apple hasn't gone after Google itself over competition from Android devices - it's going after the device manufacturers. It's also not going after them over patent infringement - it's claiming infringement of trademarks, trade dress, "Community Design."

They are able to do this because of some obvious problems with the EU Community Design and USPTO. Problems which NEED to be reformed to prevent these ongoing legal battles, but of course will NEVER be reformed because the government makes money in court filings and most of our so-called representatives are lawyers by trade - it's their industry that is making out like bandits over these suits. Furthermore, at least here in the United States, our government seems perfectly happy to let corporations draft the legislation and let the politicians they arguably own introduce it. That legislation is, not surprisingly, going to be beneficial to the corporate interests that wrote the bill. Fox in the hen house kinda stuff.

In what way are Intellectual Property law and the agencies that register the claims broken? Well, for one Apple files "iterative" Community Design claims in Europe. They start with a rectangle, file that. Then add a round button. File that. Add a rectangular screen. File that. All the way up from generic drawings to actual photos of finished devices. And that allows them to sue other companies for infringement at any and every level of those iterative filings! If you think "Well, that's just silly Europe for ya'" think again. The USPTO granted Apple a trademark on any handheld electronic device with a rectangular shape and rounded corners. So, internationally, now Apple "owns" rectangles. You know, that ubiquitous shape for pretty much every phone and tablet computer available? Even when Apple isn't busy suing people to keep their allegedly "infringing" products out of the marketplace the government sometimes helps them out for free. I know of one person who purchased a large order of Chinese-made OEM (no name) 7" Android tablets for use at a school. US Customs seized them on the grounds that they were "counterfeit" iPads in violation of Apple's trademark. They were plastic, not aluminum. They were 7" 16:9 ratio screens, not a 4:3 9.7" screen. They were running a stock Android OS, not one "skinned" to look like iOS. Any FOOL could have been able to tell they weren't iPads, but that didn't matter apparently. Yet the FCC approved the Motorola Xoom, Galaxy Tab, Vizio Tablet, and a bunch of less well known products with exactly the SAME shape, and in some case the same size screen and aspect ratio. Such inconsistency in enforcement of IP rights is also indicative of how broken the system is.

A lot of this is down to the officials at the filing offices. They are granting IP claims to companies for some astonishingly broad and generic things - you know, like rectangles. This I really don't understand because if you were trying to apply for a trademark on a logo of equally spartan design it would be refused on the basis that you can't trademark simple geometric shapes as logos - yet for some reason you CAN trademark them as the shapes of devices?! The USPTO also grants patents on really general things like gestures and processes - without requiring any specifics like actual code. This happens in no small part because the USPTO (and the patent offices in many other countries) don't require you to supply a working model or limit the claim to a specific application. So someone goes to the trouble and expense of figuring out how to write code or build a device that does something or another and then they get sued by someone else who was granted a patent on that something or other and wants compensation - even though they never implemented it or even figured out HOW to implement it.

Of course companies claim they NEED to be able to apply for and protect an "idea" so they can secure investment money to implement it, and the patent (or pending patent) is an assurance to the investors that some other company isn't working on the same thing and might undercut them by coming to market first. But there seriously has to be a better way doesn't there?

Nobody really knows how to fix the IP laws because they're so convoluted and there are so many interests involved who would resist any change, or only advocate changes beneficial to their own position. A good start, though, would be to reject claims for trademark or trade dress on simple shapes and patents on general things anyone could do (like gestures). Software patents should also be limited to particular applications, languages, or platforms. The code itself should rightly be protected under copyright, not patent law. Last but not least would be the addition of a "loser pays" clause for civil lawsuits to discourage frivolous suits or patent trolls looking for an easy payday (which should be illegal anyway as "unjust enrichment"). I'd go one step further and outlaw the formation of IP holding companies, whose only sole purpose is to sue others for infringing on properties in their portfolio for financial gain while producing and innovating nothing.

Until such a mythical time arises, however, we're stuck with the current state of affairs. It appears Apple will continue to use it's gigantic multi-billion dollar war chest to launch attacks at any and every company they deem a potential competitor - and will continue to do so until they either run out of money to file the suits and/or the shareholders cry foul as Apple's product lines grow stagnant due to the lack of competition and the redirection of revenue away from product development and into the legal department.

People, of course, could boycott Apple products to convey their distaste for these tactics - not that huge corporations EVER really feel the sting of a boycott. They frankly don't seem to take notice at all. For my part I'm seriously considering never, ever buying another Apple product no matter how cool, or neat, or good it is. Even if it's the only product legally allowed on the shelves.