|by Wes George
Piracy Against Apple, It's A Cultural Thing
August 23rd, 1999
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it."
Alan Kay, Group Leader Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, 1972
"Good artists create. Great artists steal."
This famous quote by Picasso lingers on the screen at the beginning of the movie Pirates of Silicon Valley as a twisted summation of the whole film. Now, the Trigem and Daewoo corporations of Korea would like to join Microsoft in the ranks of the "Great Artists."
Trigem is the principle instigator behind the US front company eMachines, maker of the iMac look-a-like PC, eOne. The Daewoo Group is the ailing Korean chaebol, now crumbling under $45 billion in bad debts, that owns Future Power maker of yet another cheap iMac PC rip-off called E-Power. On July 1st, Apple filed suit against Daewoo and Future Power to stop them from marketing the E-Power and to seek punitive damages. Last week, Apple filed the same type of suit against eMachines.
Picasso hardly meant that great artists steal popular designs whose original source is known to everyone. What Picasso did mean was that great artists rummage through the great junk heap of lost, bypassed, and forgotten ideas to find the rare jewels, and then incorporate such languishing gems into their own personal artistic legacy.
Picasso and his chums did as much with West African art by noticing the genius inherent in African totems and fetishes found fading in the museums of Europe. These young artists hanging out on the West Bank of Paris were perhaps the first Europeans to regard "primitive" art as a source of inspirational beauty. By appropriating these forgotten and ignored images, the modernists gave primitive iconography a second life as an abstract visual language for the "modern" world.
When the movie, Pirates of Silicon Valley, used Picasso's famous quote, they implied that the Apple engineers were the good artists and the Microsoft engineers the great artists.
But the screenwriters got it totally wrong, the Apple engineers were the great artists, and the Microsoft hoods, lead by Mr. Gates, were more akin to a Dickensian gang of purse-snatchers than artists, or even competent thieves. Picasso implied that great artists don't get caught stealing because what they appropriate they transform so thoroughly into their own persona, that everyone ends up thinking the great idea was theirs in the first place. Everyone knows the unsavory truth about Windows.
There is really nothing dishonorable about appropriating concepts cast aside by an earlier myopic generation or corporation. It's quite another activity altogether to blatantly attempt to steal new ideas in the heyday of their success. This is why Bill Gates will never be regarded as a genius, but merely a clever con artist who stumbled on stage at just the perfect point in history to pull off The Single Greatest Intellectual Property Rights Theft of the Century. That's one for the Guinness Book of World Records.
Apologists for Microsoft point out that the Apple engineers, led by Mr. Jobs, stole the Graphical User Interface idea from Xerox PARC. The truth is what the Apple engineers saw at the Xerox Lab was a far cry from the Mac OS. More importantly, what they saw was a concept essentially cast aside by the management of Xerox, and doomed for that virtual junk heap of ideas. Xerox was incapable as an organization to imagine the significance of the paradigm shift they had in their pocket.
What Steve, Woz, and Co. appropriated from Xerox was a gestalt, which once experienced could never be entirely shaken. The Xerox GUI, by today's standards as primitive as a West African fetish, was a paradigm that once beheld by those knowledgeable and creative Apple engineers made it quite impossible to put the command-line interface blinders back on. I doubt the concept of a Graphical User Interface is any more patentable than the concept of a four-wheel vehicle.
What Bill Gates, and now e-Machine and Future Power, has done is of a quite different order. They're not "inspired" by the novel gestalt or the new paradigm shift that Apple has labored so giftedly to deliver unto the world. Microsoft and the Koreans have not improved upon any prototype first generation Apple inventions. The Mac OS and the iMac are not languishing concepts lost to the world, or ripe for rediscovery by someone with the creative genius to see their true value.
What e-Machine and Future Power are interested in is stealing easy profits away from Apple by copying the iMac's successful cosmetic details, cheapening and debasing them in the process, to fraudulently present their products to the consumer as something creative, even fashionable and worthy of purchase. Like Microsoft, they have an army of lawyers to stave off persecution.
Simply put, the goal is to make money based on the millions of dollars that Apple spent on developing the iMac.
Where the Mac OS had a "trash" icon, Microsoft put a "recycle bin". The iMac comes in five fruit flavors, the e-Machine comes in five gemstone colors. Internet Explorer, though not technically illegal, is a decadent and dishonest mimic of Netscape Navigator. This is more than mindless theft of trade dress intellectual property. It's the theft of tiny details with little feeling for the gestalt of the whole. It's crude, brutal barbarism. It harkens back to a pre-capitalistic dark ages where the only way to advance one's position in life was to steal your neighbor's cattle and chattel.
I imagine that the engineers at eMachines, who suggested any design improvements over the original iMac blueprints, were told to shut up. The group leaders of the design team are surely a band of legal experts, not engineers. The Korean top brass calculated that the price of fighting Apple in court was more cost efficient and less fraught with unknown risks than spending the money necessary to design something original.
eMachine and Future Power could have found the inspiration in the un-copyrightable gestalt of the iMac to create a unique PC, much like the Apple team found inspiration at Xerox PARC to create the Mac OS. Instead, the chaebols, at least partly funded indirectly by questionable Korean government loans, have hijacked the iMacs total design down to the details.
eMachine and Future Power are wannabe Microsofts. They believe that lawyers are cheaper than engineers, and that lawsuits are more profitable than vast research and development facilities. The frightening part is that in our increasingly legalistic and bureaucratic society they might be proven to be right. The truth is that eMachine and Future Power are little more than mere mobsters who, upon identifying the most profitable merchant in their neighborhood, are now shaking him down for some of that profit.
The really outstanding thing to me is how little moral or fiduciary outrage over the theft of intellectual property rights that there seems to be in our society. This is all the more puzzling because the basis of our information economy is the right for the creators to benefit monetarily from the ideas, software, music and computer designs that they labor to invent. Without this protection under the law, the fastest pirates hiding out on the fringes of the free world could eventually dominate the new digital world economy.
If the Korean chaebols win the right to sell the eOne and the E-Power, this will signal the mobsters in Russia, the software pirates in China and the reverse engineers of Redmond that, "Ay, matey! The coast is clear to rape and pillage those who would invent the future."
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Wes George writes about the financial side of being a Mac nut. Wes has followed Apple's finances for the last 7 years and comes to The Mac Observer every Monday to tell all about his opinions. He is, in his own words, "inordinately fond of money." If you would like to write Wes, make it nice. Someday you might own a company that has something to do with Apple, and Wes will probably still be writing for The Mac Observer...... On the other hand, Mr. George is known to love a rousing, hair-raising debate, so send him your worst!
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