Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Patents, Apple, Whatever

There’s been a lot of coverage in the news about Apple’s various patent wars against Samsung and others, and the gist of the coverage is that the patent system was 100% fine up until Apple woke up one morning and decided to destroy anyone making a rectangle-shaped touchscreen phone.

I have no real arguments for or against the system, but one argument I keep hearing is “well what if someone patented the car?”  Funny thing is, someone did.  Check it:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_B._Selden#The_Selden_patent and the patent itself: http://www.s363.com/selden/549160.pdf

George Selden was granted a patent for his “road locomotive”, and forced all other car manufacturers to license it, for a .75% royalty.  Ford later fought this in court, and lost; it was only on appeal that they were able overturn the patent.  The eight year legal battle almost bankrupted Ford.  This happened, by the way, over 100 years ago.

Another example of the fact that the patent system wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns until the invention of the iPhone: did you know that the Wright brothers were awarded a patent on the airplane?  More specifically, it was a patent on flight controls in all three axes, but they vigorously fought (and initially won) a huge lawsuit against Curtiss. It effectively blocked the building of airplanes in the US until the first World War, when the government stepped in and formed a patent pool.  (More info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wright_brothers_patent_war)

There have been countless patent battles in the last century, and this Apple/Samsung thing is just the latest iteration.  I think it’s different now because people have such an attachment to their devices, that their brand loyalty becomes the newest us versus them.  Look at the comments on any of these news blogs from the Apple or Android or Microsoft fans (or whatever pejorative term you prefer) and you’ll find a level of hate and vitriol usually seldom found outside of a political news web site.  And in the days of page count-generated revenue, it’s far too easy for the gizmodos and engadgets of the world to throw up a daily article saying “is the new XYZ an iWhatever killer?” and let the ad imprints roll.

I am an Apple user, and that obviously influences my opinions.  But I also worked at a Samsung R&D lab, and saw things internally that strengthen those opinions. I should probably go back and re-read my NDA and exit papers before I say anything about Samsung and their design aesthetic.  I wouldn’t want Samsung to send me to prison for libel.

Anyway, the patent system may be horrible and broken, but the idea that it suddenly happened recently is off by a century or so.