Sunday, July 1, 2012

Apple v. Google (by proxy)

Note: A version of this post was originally published March 15, 2010 in GSU College of Law's "The Docket"

Apple v. Google (by proxy)
Apple is worried. 

Despite denials to the contrary, it appears that at least some in Cupertino are worried that Google's newest phone, the Nexus One, is an "iPhone Killer" after all. On March 2, 2010 Apple filed suit alleging that HTC, the Nexus One's manufacturer, is infringing twenty Apple patents. There are many interesting aspects about Apple's move.

Why sue HTC instead of Google?

Because Google is huge and people generally like them while HTC is relatively unknown.  Apple wants to play "good guy" as long as they can and going toe-to-toe with Google might reveal that the guy behind the curtain isn't actually a good wizard after all. 

What patents are claimed to be infringed?

Although I'm not very conversant in patent law, the patents in question generally fall into two categories: operating system (OS) type patents and user interface (UI) type patents.  The OS patents are generally more "traditional" patents while the UI patents are typical of the patents that continue to frustrate because they should not be patentable (e.g. Amazon's 1-Click system).  Regardless of the outcome, according to ars technica, this lawsuit "[...] may become the poster child for the ills of the US patent system."

What is at stake?

Fundamentally what we're seeing is a battle between Apple's closed-system and Google's open-source philosophies.  Apple's products perform as designed because Apple controls the hardware and software with a velvet glove.  Conversely, Google believes in open source and open platforms, allowing their services to run on any number of systems via web browser.  Not only are Google's services provided free, end-users are actively encouraged to create new innovations using Google's code base.  The operating system that runs the Nexus One is Google's latest version of Android, an open-source OS that is becoming increasingly popular.  Android's continued success worries Apple.

Obviously it's still very early and not at all clear what impact this lawsuit will have but I'll leave you with two quotes that may provide some perspective:

It’s a bad scene right now.  The social value of patents was supposed to be to encourage innovation — that’s what society gets out of it.  The net effect [of lawsuits like this one] decrease innovation, and in the end, the public loses out.” 

- Eric Von Hippel, Professor of Technological Innovation at M.I.T.

"Picasso had a saying. He said that 'Good artists copy; great artists steal.' And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.
- Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple

For more information about Apple's opening salvo in the Patent Wars:
ars technica:  "Apple flings poo at HTC"

Computerworld: "Apple's HTC suit will help squash innovation"

Engadget:  "Apple vs HTC: a patent breakdown"

Fortune: "Apple vs. HTC: What the experts say"

Patent Litigation Weekly:  "Digging beneath the surface of Apple v. HTC"

Slashdot:  "Apple sues HTC for 20 patent violations in phones"

Update 1 (March 15, 2010)
Interesting blog from Tim Bray, co-inventor of XML (read: a big deal in techie-land) who recently joined Google's Android team.  He discusses a "walled garden" metaphor about the iPhone in the below quote:
The iPhone vision of the mobile Internet’s future omits controversy, sex, and freedom, but includes strict limits on who can know what and who can say what. It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord’s pleasure and fear his anger.

I hate it.


Apple apparently thinks you can have the benefits of the Internet while at the same time controlling what programs can be run and what parts of the stack can be accessed and what developers can say to each other.


The tragedy is that Apple builds some great open platforms; I’ve been a happy buyer of their computing systems for some years now and, despite my current irritation, will probably go on using them.

Update 2 (March 17, 2010)
On a somewhat-related-note, Google's trademark for "Nexus One" has been denied by the USPTO for likelihood of confusion with trademark No. 3554195, registered in 2008 to a Portland-based company for telecommunication services. To read the denial visit the USPTO portal and click on "Offc Action Outgoing."

Update 3 (July 1, 2012)
What is the status of the Patent Wars now?

The patent infringement lawsuit continues and HTC has since countersued Apple for infringement of four patents purchased from Google. In a possible sign of what to expect from the lawsuit, Apple's complaint to the ITC that HTC infringed twenty patents has resulted in a finding that only one patent had been infringed, with the other nineteen claims dismissed.

Since 2010 Apple and Motorola have been involved in patent litigation in the U.S. and Germany. On June 22, 2012 Judge Richard Posner dismissed the U.S. case with prejudice.

By October 2011, Apple and Samsung were involved in twenty lawsuits involving patent infringement. These lawsuits cover ten countries and four continents. In the past week Apple scored two significant wins against Samsung resulting in a U.S. ban on Samsung's Android-based Galaxy Nexus tablet.

Although it's unclear what the future holds for the participants of the Patent Wars it is much clearer that the uncertainty surrounding the patents at issue (and software patents in general) has not furthered the Constitution's goal of "promot[ing] the Progress of Science and useful Arts" as originally intended. Why innovate when you can litigate?