Apple Behaving Poorly Amid Patent Reform Debate | Commentary

Posted April 10, 2014 at 4:00am

One of the unique characteristics of our country is the pace at which innovation can generate positive societal developments, consumer benefits and economic opportunity. The protection of intellectual property is essential to ensuring one’s hard-wrought inventions are not exploited. However, the patent system of today has gone awry and Congress is right to address it.

Technology and lifesaving drugs are two areas that have developed a pipeline of hope for underserved and unserved communities. Yet, costly patent litigation in courtrooms across the country has become an all too familiar folly ultimately impeding on the creative process.

Last week, Apple, for instance, again returned to court in a seemingly permanent legal battle that will essentially increase the cost of their competitors’ products or ban them altogether. The company’s uncompromising litigation mindset could actually slow the wheels of technological development and advancement, while also limiting consumer choice, especially among underserved communities.

This new trial will evaluate the merits of Apple’s claims that some of Samsung’s newer devices infringed on its patents. In a digital economy, these types of permanent legal campaigns impact consumers and innovation in real way.

In this instance, Apple is seeking damages of $40 dollars for every Samsung device of a particular model — a charge that experts have deemed outrageous and one that would inevitably get passed onto consumers. Apple isn’t stopping there. Twice it has sought to ban the sale of Samsung devices all together, as recently this March. At that time, a district judge issued the second rejection. But within hours, Apple publicly stated it would appeal the decision.

When will this legal merry-go-round end?

Unfortunately, Apple’s aggressive litigation strategy ultimately hurts the very customers it hopes to siphon as a result of the fees it seeks to levy and the ban it is pursuing on competitors’ products. For instance, minority communities disproportionately buy and rely on more affordable smart devices — similar to the ones Apple has tried to ban in the U.S. — as their primary connection to the Internet. Imposing a ban or levying insane fees hurts these consumers, limiting their ability to have access to wireless Internet.

The societal benefits of supporting broadband adoption and connecting our communities are impossible to overstate. Not only do we communicate online, today individuals conduct business, monitor their health and finances, access educational materials and more all at the tap of a button. The African-American, Latino and rural communities have been among the chief beneficiaries of the narrowing digital divide. As the Internet becomes increasingly central to everyday life, restricting access will put those on the losing end at an even greater disadvantage.

Certainly, Apple’s patent claims are not unique. Rightly, companies rely on patent protections to safeguard their ideas and products. One can imagine that if an individual or company did all the heavy lifting only to have a competitor swoop in and steal their idea at the final stages, not many companies would invest in new concepts. Yet, there is a point where companies need to see the forest for the trees.

In the current legal challenge, the technology in question pertains to features any smartphone owner is familiar with — autocomplete and swipe-to-unlock, hardly the cutting edge technology revolutionizing phone usage. How much better off would consumers be if both companies directed the resources put into litigation into creating new products and better service?

Patents should be used to foster innovation, not prevent it. Apple and Samsung would be wise to refocus their attention to the needs of the customers they serve that rely on mobile broadband and continue to create devices that are reshaping how Americans live.

Former Rep. Eva M. Clayton represented North Carolina’s 1st District from 1992 to 2003 and served as assistant secretariat general at the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome.