Apple, HTC Patent Battle Could Stifle Innovation

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Apple filed a lawsuit and ITC complaint against smartphone maker HTC for iPhone-related patent violations on Monday, and some legal experts think the move could ultimately hamper innovation instead of protecting it, according to the New York Times.

"It's a bad scene right now," said Eric Von Hippel, professor of technological innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management. "The social value of patents was supposed to be to encourage innovation -- that's what society gets out of it."

One potential outcome, although unlikely, is that the courts could order HTC to disable certain features in its smartphones, such as the multitouch features Google recently added to its Android platform. A similar situation arose in 2004 when a court ordered EchoStar to remotely kill features in its DVR products because they infringed on TiVo-owned technology.

What's more likely, however, is that Apple, HTC, and ultimately Google, will reach an agreement outside of the courtroom -- and before that happens, Google and HTC are likely to file counter suits against Apple. Considering that cases like this can draw out for ten years, there'll be plenty of time for all of the sides to come to an agreement away from the judge's bench.

In the end it may be customers that feel the brunt of patent-related legal battles like this. Companies could start seeing the risk associated with innovation as too high and give up on pursuing their own ideas, or they could see cost of defending their ideas and products as too expensive.

"The net effect is that they decrease innovation, and in the end, the public loses out," Mr. Von Hippel said.

Comments

BenG

People don’t understand what the patent process is all about.  It is about encouraging me to spend untold dollars and hours on something entirely new.

If the day I announce it, you come along and copy it, with no prior investment, then I have wasted my time and money.  This will stifle invention more than you can imagine.

I have to have a “grace” period in which to make profits off the invention to pay back the original investment and encourage me to do it again.  The consumer benefits from the product which wasn’t there before.

Of course, people can “game” the system by patenting your DNA, or something obvious, like light switches - and that needs to be addressed in patent law.

But - if you kill the patent system, you will absolutely kill invention.

daemon

One potential outcome, although unlikely, is that the courts could order HTC to disable certain features in its smartphones, such as the multitouch features Google recently added to its Android platform.

Apple isn’t suing for multi-touch. Atleast not yet….

What’s more likely, however, is that Apple, HTC, and ultimately Google, will reach an agreement outside of the courtroom

No, after Steve Jobs declared in the investor meeting that Apple would be using their $40 billion dollars for bold strategies, I think this is just the first in a long line of patent suits Apple will be waging. I think Apple’s intent here is to destroy Android.

Dianne

“But - if you kill the patent system, you will absolutely kill invention.”

Do you work in the software industry?  Every place I have worked, patents are a hindrance and absolutely no motivation for innovation.  Software companies care about innovation because it makes great products, not because they can patent the ideas.

Do you think Apple would not have made the iPhone or anything else they have done if they couldn’t patent it?

Today in the software world if you tried to do work that didn’t infringe on someone’s patent, you would be unable to accomplish anything.  There is something very sick here.

daemon

Of course, people can ?game? the system by patenting your DNA, or something obvious, like light switches - and that needs to be addressed in patent law.
But - if you kill the patent system, you will absolutely kill invention.

The problem here is that these aren’t people gaming the system, these are multi-billion dollar companies gaming the system. And there has been no attempt made by the USPTO to stop the gaming.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Ferchrisssakes, these are software patents. The Europeans know they are bogus and don’t allow them. Only in the United States of America could a company patent swiping a finger across a screen to unlock the screen.

When I read the headline, all I could think of was that bears are, indeed, Catholic and the Pope poops in the woods. Of course this will stifle innovation, raise prices, and put end users in a pickle if Apple gets its way.

@daemon, Fortunately, they can only destroy Android in consumer products used in the states. And only on phones made by manufacturers who don’t carry around giant patent portfolios. And far more likely, Apple will use the $40 billion to ride out the backlash. Apple legal is nothing special to fear. Remember it took them 2 years to shut down 8 insert-pejorative-heres in Florida. By the time they get an injunction against HTC, Android will be firmly entrenched and the backlash against Apple will be widespread.

webjprgm

HTC and Android were clearly doing a “me too” approach, releasing their iPhone-like features in response to the iPhone.  But the inability to make software with similar features would mean innovation would happen just once and then anyone else with ideas to make an improved version couldn’t do anything about it. 

Case in point is BlackBoard’s educational software. Black Board is painful to use, but any company that wants to make a better one gets sued into the ground. (Until a recent battle that will probably allow another company joint ownership of patents, but still, no one else could do anything).

In the iPhone arena, Android helps innovation by offering a feature iPhone doesn’t have, namely an open system, and this then gives customers a choice which then means iPhone has competition so Apple will have to continue to improve their product.  If Apple can sue HTC and Google into shutting down, then Apple doesn’t have to improve the iPhone anymore and can charge whatever they like.

Of course, if Apple didn’t think they could make loads of cash selling iPhones, because everyone copies the idea, then they wouldn’t have done it in the first place.  So how much do we reward the first innovation, and how much do we allow or block further innovation and competition?

That’s the debate, which is why the system works like it does now, and why lawyers get involved to handle it on a case by case basis.

BenG

@ dianne

There are many arguments that the software industry contains too many frivolous patents, and I think it is obvious that reform is needed - within the system.

Software is only a part of a device. There are all the chips, the screens, the electronics.  Where would you stop in eliminating the patent system?

The solution is reform, not destruction.

vasic

Pharmaceutical industry has a time limit on patents for drugs. When the patent expires, other manufacturers can make generic versions of the same drug.

There may be something to be said about this concept. It would allow original creator of a “method or apparatus” to properly profit from the talent, effort and resources invested in that creation, but would eventually allow others to take that “method or apparatus” and implement it in their own way.

Much like Disney can take Grimm brothers tales, adapt them and make movies. But then again, Disney made sure copyright term is extended beyond any reasonable term, so that nobody is allowed to take Mickey Mouse and create something else from it…

vasic

As applied to this particular case (Apple vs. HTC), no innovation is being stifled by protecting Apple’s patents. HTC never had any multi-touch devices. They never innovated anything. They saw iPhone, reverse-engineered it, built the hardware just like the iPhone and slapped Android OS on it, to make it look and work just like the iPhone. What part of this process can be called innovation?

Anyone with a proper moral compass should be compelled to boycott devices that so blatantly imitate Apple’s iPhone. Friends don’t let friends buy knock-offs!

BenG

@ all

We need to understand the different between “innovation” and “invention”.

Invention is the create of something new, that didn’t exist before.  Something “not obvious to one skilled in the art”.

This “non obviousness” is the root of a patentable “invention”.

Innovation, on the other hand, fails to rise to the level of invention.  It is a tweaking of something, a change of shape, assembling more features, etc. Or, it may not pass the “obviousness test”.  This may give new utility, but it is not invention.

Some have said, and I can agree, that “innovation” has crept into the software patent process and needs be eliminated.  Some of the “features” being argued over do not deserve protection.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

They saw iPhone, reverse-engineered it, built the hardware just like the iPhone and slapped Android OS on it, to make it look and work just like the iPhone. What part of this process can be called innovation?

You’ve obviously never used an Android phone. Example… it’s common to have a weather widget on your home screen, so you don’t have to go into the Weather app to see that it’s going to be sunny in Southern California.

vasic

And you are obviously taking my statement literally, in hope of redirecting the debate. Anyone who spent even 20 minutes with iPhone and any Android (or Pre) device will quickly see how incredibly similar they are, compared to all pre-iPhone touchscreen devices (using WinMobile, Symbian or the old Palm OS).

Apple invented all the multi-touch conventions and brought them to the market with the iPhone. Others saw them and copied them into their systems. Their icons may be different, their “home screens” may be different, but all the conventions are identical. That’s obviously infringement.

Nate

I dont think one should be able to patent a finger gesture. Otherwise, I will go patent the high-five and then how would kids celebrate a job well done?!

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Funny that Google bought Android, Inc. in 2005, isn’t it? You know, back when Apple was fiddling with iTunes on a Motorola phone. That the acquisition included a co-founder of Danger and the lead UI designer from WebTV. That there was as much speculation about a Google phone that would run Google mobile apps in December, 2006 as there was about an Apple iPhone.

It’s also funny that few of the 20 patents would be granted outside the United States, because they are trivial software patents. Slide to unlock? Really? As BenG pointed out, perhaps innovative. Not an invention that merits monopoly protection.

Touch screens… Been around for 25 years. Anyone else remember the old joke about the HP-150? It was more popular with office secretaries than the IBM PC because they would rather touch 8 inches than look at 12. So while it might be innovative to apply them to cell phones, it is by no means inventive.

Apple fans really ought to be embarrassed by Steve Jobs latest stupid crusade. More fundamentally, you should be embarrassed that he’s leading you down the same path to mostly irrelevant high-end nichedome as he did in the 80s with the Mac. Android handsets are shipping at a rate of 60,000 per day now. Android will, in a year’s time, be the industry de facto standard, with high end devices from a slew of manufacturers running on all three major carriers. Even if Apple’s claims are correct, it lacks the bandwidth to stop it. Such is the flaw with Jobs’ ultra-proprietary approach.

@Nate: I would patent “feed the birds”. Lots of upside in that one!

xmattingly

“It’s a bad scene right now,” said Eric Von Hippel, professor of technological innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “The social value of patents was supposed to be to encourage innovation—that’s what society gets out of it.”

That’s the biggest load of crap I’ve heard today. Patents are intended to encourage entrepreneurship, not the betterment of society. Love it or hate it, the world runs on capitalism. Without monetary incentive to build better mousetraps, far less innovation would take place and ultimately there wouldn’t be any room for whiny liberal “professors”.

JMP

Stealing a competitor’s patented features is in no way creative. Enforcing legitimate patents is essential to stimulate creativity amongst competitors. Some of them may utterly fail in this process, but that is fine. It makes room for more creative participants to enter the field and stimulate existing players to keep inovating. I am amazed to hear that some “legal experts think the move could ultimately hamper innovation”. These guys are simply trying to invent an excuse for their failing clients.

iBill

This lawsuit will stifle innovation only if your definition of innovation includes patent theft. HTC has nothing to worry about so long as their smartphones don’t utilize any of Apple’s IP.

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