Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Samsung-Apple ruling in California

The recent jury verdict in the Apple-Samsung patent infringement case needs to be seen in global context and in the context of the networked information economy in which we now live.  In this post I'd like to call attention to two of the issues.  First, the notion that Apple should be allowed to patent so exclusively the physical design of its smartphone.  In fact, Apple's iPhone, like all smart phones, is a hand held computer.  Its main components include the screen, a case, a memory chip, a processing chip, a GPS unit, etc.  The process for manufacturing screens is a bit like that for semiconductors.  They are churned out in mass and in a certain size.   Also consider that there is a certain range of sizes that fits comfortably in the human hand.  Given these realities it seems reasonable that there were in fact, design proposals similar to the Apple iPhone before it ever appeared (that, in fact, is what Samsung claimed publicly) and it stems from the simple reality that you have to build a lightweight, hand-held device that will accommodate a certain size screen.
Second, a related issue is discussed in an insightful article in The Korea Times by Kim Tong Hyun.  As he points out,"The real issue is whether the framework of the century-old patent laws, which served as the basis for the San Jose decision, has outlived its essential usefulness for inspiring innovation."  These days I've been reading Yochai Benkler's excellent book, The Wealth of Networks, particularly for his treatment of the basic economic characteristics of information.  One very important characteristic of information, referred to by economists as the "on the shoulders of giants" effect.  Information is both an input and an output of its own production process.  In fact, innovation in today's global ICT sector depends critically on this characteristic.
Let's face it, Apple, while producing some devices that people love to use, has not yet embraced the open model of the internet that Google and other companies, along with many citizens groups and even governments seek to foster.  Those of you who think that Apple should be the only company allowed to manufacture devices with the "pinch to zoom" touchscreen feature should remain loyal to Apple, but I believe that in the long run, consumers, companies, citizens groups and others around the world will weigh in against Apple on their limited, litigious approach to building networks and devices for the information age.

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