Slide To Unlock (Billions Of Dollars)

Intellectual property is incredibly important. Human civilisation has reached the point where “having the most shiny things” is no longer a sign of incredible wealth, but of an obsessive toy collection. We’ve successfully converted cash into information, and even more importantly, people can now convert information into cash. So it’s a bit unfortunate that phone companies are doing more to devalue intellectual property than an amateur lobotomist.

The whole point of patent law is to keep smart people inventing things, because when companies can steal the fruits of your genius the very second they’re invented, inventing wouldn’t be something smart people do. But now patent law actively prevents progress. Legions of lawyers twist legal texts written way back when Nokia was a medieval paper mill to allow mobile phone companies to screw each other. This isn’t just the letter of the law winning over the spirit – words haven’t done so much damage to a spirit since the Ghostbusters shouted “Cross the streams!”

The most recent example comes from Apple’s victory over Motorola for infringing a “slide to unlock” patent. Yes, the thing you do to start using your smartphone. Literally the first thing anybody with a brain and a finger would think of to do. You can’t just touch the screen, because then it would start up in your pocket, so the next move even a monkey would manage is to touch it then move your finger. When a process is discovered by five year olds in finger-painting class it isn’t intellectual property – it’s a test to make sure you aren’t braindead.

Not only did courtrooms full of professionals have to stand around and pretend the case wasn’t idiotic, nor were they stupid enough to find in favour of the patent: they supported Apple in two cases out of three. Apparently, the Motorola Xoom’s slide to unlock, which differs from the others (in ways so small they’d have an electron microscope scratching its head and saying “I give up, where are they?”), is different enough not to be affected. But since Motorola have already updated its other designs with the same spectacularly subtle differences, there shouldn’t be any problem.

Except there is. This sort of petty patent case is constantly draining time and resources from better projects, and every company is doing it. Apple aren’t evil here, it’s just that the company provides the most recent example. Google recently filed its own version of slide-to-unlock, while the Samsung Galaxy Tab was temporarily banned from sale in Germany thanks to the same sort of legal exploitation.

We understand that a company has to protect its inventions, but ideally the judges in the cases shouldn’t think wireless phones are some sort of mystical speaking-rocks. Chevrolet would be right to sue another company that just started pumping out Camaros, but it couldn’t sue Toyota just because its cars have four wheels too.

There’s a very simple way to use patents to annihilate your competition: design a better phone. Patent it. Then sell it. Anything else only hurts the customers.

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