Visit the Louvre or another gallery and you will see copyists, usually skilled artists making meticulous copies of the Masters. Before high-quality colour reproduction, most painting students were sent to work as copyists.
In 1814, JMW Turner even submitted a close copy of a landscape by Claude (Lorrain) in a competition run by the British Institution to copy old Masters: Appulia in search of Appulus vide Ovid, now in the Tate.
Computers and their human interfaces are a far cry from Turner, being protected by laws of both patent and copyright. Just as you can judge the similarities between that Turner and Claude’s original Landscape with Jacob, Laban and his Daughters (1654), so we can between Apple products like the iPhone and iPad and their imitators, and the iMac and HP’s Spectre One and its ilk.
Unfortunately the law, being the proverbial ass, cannot rely on such observations, nor apply common sense, instead making judgement on the basis of patents, strange abstractions that are the raw material for one of the few growth industries. Gone are the days of claims made on the basis of ‘look and feel’, although those mean more to you and me.
Despite international alignment of laws of patent and copyright, and the claimed impartiality of justice, the summer of 2012 saw three judgements that have taken contrasting views. In the UK, Samsung’s claim that its Galaxy tablets were dissimilar to the iPad was upheld, apparently because the Galaxy was not perceived to be “cool” enough, and Apple was ordered to advertise that Samsung had not copied the iPad, in the Orwellian expectation that the slogan will override observation.
In South Korea, both Apple and Samsung were found to have infringed one another’s patents, and a token exchange of damages was awarded. But a US jury reeled at what it deemed to be infringement of several utility and design patents, and ordered Samsung to pay just over a billion dollars in damages. Whilst a substantial sum, it is actually small relative to the turnover of either party, and continues through a seemingly eternal series of appeals. Apple followed that case up with a fresh claim concerning Samsung’s Galaxy and the iPad, documented on Wikipedia’s growing account.
Those critical of Apple have tried to argue that the US verdict will stifle innovation, and limit consumer choice; so far there is evidence of neither effect in nearly three years. The laws protecting intellectual property are and should be aimed at blocking industrial copyists, those trying to profit from the innovation of others. For over 25 years Apple watched others copy key features of Mac OS as it had consistently lost out to that competition.
Whilst Mac users had to contend with the type of approach adopted by the UK court, that no-one would confuse a Mac with its imitators, those imitations were commercially highly successful.
Apple has learned that its earlier laissez faire approach cost it, and Mac OS, dearly – almost to the point of bankruptcy. There is still ample room for innovation without copying, and any corporation that deserves to succeed will come up with novel products that break new ground into virgin markets.
Although I remain unconvinced that it will have the astonishing mass appeal of the iPad, Microsoft’s Surface looks distinct and is at least bold enough to try something different. That is more than can be said for the slow and late series of iPad imitations, some of which have already suffered the ultimate judgement of the market.
It is a hard world out there, and Apple’s recent success could evaporate as magically as it has grown. I do not like corporate lawyers, but here they have an important job to do, ensuring that copyists stay in the galleries where they belong.
Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 28 issue 22, 2012. Has anything changed? How long before we see a knock-off of the Apple Watch that has pretensions above the current crop of pre-fakes?