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Harvard Business Review: Who Cares If Samsung Copied Apple?

Nice piece from James Allworth at the Harvard Business Review blog. Allsworth senses that there is something wrong with the whole idea of patents, which protect companies from competition and copying, since copying is part of competition on the free market. Yet he cannot quite grasp the idea that patents should be completely abolished, as when he writes: “Too often, it seems that companies fall back on the broken patent system when they can’t compete in the marketplace.” “Too often”? No. This is the nature of patents. And the patent system is not “broken”. The problem with the patent system is not that it is “abused” or has flaws. It is the patent system itself that is the problem: the idea of state-granted monopoly privileges that allow companies to use state force to protect themselves from emulation, copying, and competition.

Who Cares If Samsung Copied Apple?

by James Allworth  |   7:00 AM August 20, 2012

The web has been alight these past few weeks with the details of the Apple v. Samsung lawsuit. It’s been a unique opportunity to peer behind the curtain of how these two companies operate, as the trial seeks to answer the question: did Samsung copy Apple? But there’s actually another question that I think is much more interesting to the future of innovation in the technology industry: regardless of whether the courts say that Samsung copied Apple or not, would we all be better off if we allowed — even encouraged — companies to copy one another?

This is particularly relevant in the context of the Apple/Samsung trial, because it isn’t the first time Apple has been involved in a high-stakes “copying” court case. If you go back to the mid-1990s, there was their famous “look and feel” lawsuit against Microsoft. Apple’s case there was eerily similar to the one they’re running today: “we innovated in creating the graphical user interface; Microsoft copied us; if our competitors simply copy us, it’s impossible for us to keep innovating.” Apple ended up losing the case.

But it’s what happened next that’s really fascinating.

Apple didn’t stop innovating at all. Instead: they came out with the iMac. Then OS X (“Redmond, start your photocopiers“). Then the iPod. Then the iPhone. And now, most recently, the iPad. Given the underlying reason that Apple has been bringing these cases to court was to enable them to continue to innovate, it’s hard not to ask: if copying stops innovation, why didn’t Apple stop innovating last time they were copied? Being copied didn’t stop or slow their ability to innovate at all. If anything, it only seemed to accelerate it. Apple wasn’t able to rest on its laurels; to return to profitability, and to take the mantle they hold today of one of the technology industry’s largest companies, they had to innovate as fast as they could.

This point is worth considering more deeply in the debate over intellectual property protection. An excerpt from Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman’s book, The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, that ran in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, made exactly this point. The ingoing assumption for most folks when looking at industries is: without protection from copying, innovation stops. However, and somewhat counter-intuitively, Raustiala and Sprigman show that rather than stifling industries, there are plenty of examples where industries actually thrive because they are so open to copying. As they say: “Great innovations often build on existing ones — and that requires the freedom to copy.” Which even seems to be true at Apple — see this email from Apple exec Eddy Cue, advocating a change to Apple’s lineup of tablet products… as a result of him trying out a product that Samsung had released on to the market.

Some might say copying. But to me, it sounds like a perfectly functioning competitive market.

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To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to C4SIF. This work is published from: United States. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.