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Posted : 2012-08-26 17:10
Updated : 2012-08-26 17:10

Patent patriotism

Undue protection does more harm than good

By handing a one-sided victory to Apple over Samsung in patent suits Friday, a U.S. court put innovation ahead of competition. Or, it placed corporate interests over consumer welfare, as the loser sees it. And this issue will continue to harass judges and jurors in the worldwide patent war, which has just ended its first round.

It is hard even for experts to know the borderline that decides the values of these two conflicting industrial concepts. One can’t help but wonder how the nine laypersons in the California court studied hundreds of sophisticated technological items in just three days. Was there a prevalence of patriotism over professionalism especially in a time of a prolonged slump in major economies, including the United States?

Such a question becomes all the more valid, as the U.S. ruling came just 20 hours after the opposite judgment in a Korean court, which itself is suspected of being tinged with impartiality in favor of the domestic litigant, though far less unilaterally than its U.S. counterpart did.

Few can deny the importance of innovation and originality, which can make mankind move forward. What matters, however, is how novel, non-obvious and useful the newly-developed products are. It is doubtful in this regard whether the iPhones’ rectangular screens in cases with rounded corners are original designs of Apple. As one U.S. blogger put it, had Apple invented automobiles, not many people could have ridden four-wheeled public transit vehicles.

In the information-technology industry where all preceding technologies converge in one new product, no company can be free from infringing on others’ patents. Without patent pools and cross-licensing, few innovative IT products would see the light of day. Also questionable is why jurors or judges, and not consumers, should determine market shares of major players.

The final victims of overheated, prolonged legal battles are consumers, who will end up holding the bag, as businesses will pass litigation costs, and those from additional research and development, onto them. Patent protectionists say even that would benefit consumers eventually, by forcing competing businesses to come up with more diverse and cheaper products in the long run. In the longer run, however, we all die. So deciding the outcome of about 50 legal battles in nine countries between the two IT titans will be respective countries’ objective and realistic judgment between the economic sensibility of innovation and competition.

That said, Samsung is urged to make the most of its defeat as an occasion to differentiate its mobile products in both design and functions. And it explains why the world’s largest technology company needs to save its time and energy put to the legal proceedings.

Apple will tighten its hold on the global market for the time being. But monopoly results in complacency, as there can be no innovation without competition. Excessive adherence to patents leads to a lose-lose game. Companies should compete in markets, not courts. Let markets be the ultimate judge.

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