Apple's HTC suit will help squash innovation

Apple's recent patent infringement lawsuit against HTC proves that hypocrisy is alive and well. Years ago, Apple was sued by Xerox PARC for stealing the Mac interface. Back in those days Steve Jobs declared, "We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas." But that was then, and this is now. Lawyers, not designers, have taken center stage and innovation suffers. 

The Apple suit charges that Taiwan-based HTC infringed on 20 Apple patents in HTC's design of Android phones. The patents have to do with the iPhone interface and underlying hardware and architecture.

In a statement released by Apple, Steve Jobs is quoted as saying:

"We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We’ve decided to do something about it. We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."

That's quite a contrast to the younger version of Steve Jobs, who in the 1996 PBS documentary "Triumph of the Nerds" says:

"Picasso had a saying. He said that 'Good artists copy; great artists steal.' And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas."

You can see the video, below.

Apple itself had been accused of stealing a great idea: the Mac interface. Years ago Apple sued Microsoft, claiming that the company had stolen the Mac's look and feel for Windows. Xerox PARC, which had in essence invented the GUI, then sued Apple, claiming that Apple had stolen the Mac interface from it. The Xerox PARC suit was thrown out because the statute of limitations had expired.

These kinds of suits help no one, except the lawyers who get nice fat fees out of them. The suits can drag on for years, cost an immense amount of money, and frighten companies away from coming up with innovative ideas, because they worry about possible lawsuits.

I'm not the only person who believes that. Eric Von Hippel, a professor of technological innovation at MIT's Sloan School of Management, told the New York Times:

"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 is that they decrease innovation, and in the end, the public loses out."

He got it exactly right.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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