Thoughts on Lodsys, Patents and Apple

When Lodsys recently brought fear and anger over the iOS developer community, we all looked to Apple in the hope they would step in and defend their developers. Apple did just that eventually, and we developers were grateful that they did. Surely, this was the best and strongest response Apple could have shown. Wasn’t it?

Let’s forget for a moment that Apple’s letter to Lodsys was not enough to stop the patent troll: despite Apple’s response, Lodsys went on to sue seven small developers. We do not know yet if and how Cupertino is going to respond to this new development. Apple seems to take at least a week or so before they react publicly to any new development, so it is still possible (and perhaps even likely) that they will decide to back the unlucky seven with more than just words and give them legal and/or financial support for their fight in court.

Apple is part of the problem

But that’s not what bothers me. By licensing the patents in the first place and by basing their defense on the assertion that their license protects app developers, too, Apple has decided to play according to the rules of the game. In a perfect world, they could have shown a much stronger response by publicly disputing the validity of the patents (based on prior art, level of innovation or obviousness) and announcing to fight Lodsys in court over that issue. At the same time, Apple could have taken this event as a trigger to put all their power behind lobbying for the abolishment of all software patents, and to announce that in the future, Apple would never use their patent portfolio for anything but defensive purposes (“if you sue us, we will sue you”).

I realize I am dreaming here because, with the hundreds of patents Apple files every year, they are very much part of the problem. But other than a defense against patent litigation by competitors (which wouldn’t be threat if (software) patents didn’t exist), what good does it do Apple to support the existing patent system? It surely costs a lot of money to file and police all these patents, so that can’t be it. So does the patent portfolio give Apple a competitive advantage? I doubt it.

Remember when Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone 2007? When he mentioned the “magic” capabilities of multitouch in his Macworld keynote, Steve proudly exclaimed: “And boy have we patented it!” Hell, this point was important enough to him to warrant putting it into his slides! And what did we1 in the audience do? We cheered and applauded when we should have booed!

Steve Jobs introduces multitouch in the Macworld 2007 keynote address
“Boy have we patented it!”

Patenting multitouch did not make the world a better place, either

Why did Apple feel the need to patent a concept they haven’t even invented2? And what good did it bring them? Sure, some Android phones had no multitouch functionality in the beginning but what if they had? The iPhone UI would still have been superior in every way! Hell, four years later, it still is, despite the fact that the devices of the competition all support multitouch. Turns out that the iPhone’s butter-smooth scrolling is a hundred times more important for the user experience. And competitors still haven’t been able to copy it 100%, despite four years of effort and the fact that smooth scrolling can’t be patented! And neither Apple’s patent nor the fact that Apple is actually suing their competitors over it is apparently enough for the likes of Samsung or Motorola to stay out of the market. If innovation leads to a situation where everybody in the industry sues everybody else and the result of all this crap will probably be a zero sum game, something is seriously wrong.

My point is this: I condemn what Lodsys does and a patent for something like multitouch might be more obvious than Lodsys’s, but neither of the two did make the world a better place.

Unfortunately, I won’t be at WWDC next week. If you are there and Steve Jobs happens to announce in his keynote that Apple will fight Lodsys on behalf of the developers, please cheer loudly and thank him profoundly from me. But the next time Apple mentions or misuses their own patents to the disadvantage of the industry, let’s make sure we let them know what we think of it.

  1. I’m using “we” very loosely here. I personally wasn’t in the audience and you probably weren’t, either. But if you’re reading this, you might as well have been there. ↩︎

  2. I did not read the actual patents so Apple might very well have invented a specific technology for multitouch in handheld devices. But the concept was not new in 2007, though it probably wasn’t a problem for Apple to find one or two small but patentable pieces that they added to the idea. I also don’t know whether Apple’s patent is more about the software or the hardware part of it. In the 2007 keynote, Steve Jobs seems to focus more on the software. ↩︎