Pretty image
John reflects on copying, and how Samsung lost a billion dollars and still won.

If you’ve seen one rectangle, you’ve seen them all. –John Markoff

Tim Cook’s most dramatic accomplishment since becoming CEO has been to squeeze a billion out of Samsung for stealing the intellectual property inherent in rounded rectangles. And on his anniversary, even! What a nice present the company lawyers gave him.

I am not a lawyer, but I play one in my imagination. For some reason mny imagination sounds like Carl Sagan.

Here’s me, presenting Apple’s case against Samsung:

“When Curiosity rolled across the barren Martian landscape to gaze at the side of a 3.4-mile high mountain, it saw vast features that were both incredibly obvious and at the same time never before seen by Man. Great design is like that: it is the discovery of awesome features that noone ever saw before and yet, once they’ve been shown to you, are incredibly obvious.”

And here’s me presenting Samsung’s case:

Rounded rectangles? Are you freaking kidding me?”

Apparently Not

The jury forman holds several patents, and told his fellow members of iTheJury that they didn’t need to concern themselves with distractions like prior art. I guess if the PTO granted Apple a patent on the wheel or sex or the World Wide Web, the jury figured that Apple then owns the wheel or sex or the World Wide Web. (Thanks, John Perry Barlow, for the examples of things we can all be thankful Apple doesn’t hold a patent on.) Perfectly reasonable. The PTO wasn’t on trial. Although....

Anyway, the main feature that Apple won on is interesting: a rounded rectangle. I’d show you a picture from the patent application but I’m not stupid. Samsung just paid a billion dollars for showing what that image looks like. I can give you a link to the source code, though: Bill Atkinson’s QuickDraw code for roundrect. See? They totally invented that thing.

Now that the trial’s over, we can all move on to other things. Like what company Apple will sue next. I think they should take it to the next level. Think of Pinterest, Youtube’s mood wall, and Microsoft’s UI formerly known as Metro: in each case, a rectangle of rectangles. Is that not a clear case of infringement squared? I can already imagine the exhibits of prior art, though: old episodes of Hollywood Squares and The Brady Bunch.

But really I have nothing but scorn for both sides. Samsung slavishishly copies, Apple sues over rounded rectangles. A pox on both their houses. Of course both are prospering from all this. Apple gets a billion dollars plus enhanced suing rights. Samsung gets to keep one less of the billions it made from copying Apple and now only has to tweak its designs to satisfy a San Jose jury. Which I guess is a version of design-by-committee.

Before Apple’s design, it wasn’t obvious that this was the only sensible way to design a smartphone. After, it was hard to make a case for doing anything else. And yet some companies avoided the copying route. Kudos to RIM/Nokia for the courage to stay in their condo when the tsunami rolled in. Kudos to Palm for once again showing that real innovation can be a losing strategy. And Microsoft—I don’t know what you’re doing. Don’t you have patent immunity with Apple? Couldn’t you just totally rip off their IP? I know it goes against everything you stand for, but look how well it’s worked for Samsung. Instead, you go and do something innovative. #ShakesHead.

John Shade was born under a cloud in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. His ringtone is sosumi. Send him your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.