Since the original iPhone was introduced, competing smartphone vendors have understood that it was light years beyond anything that they had produced. And since that day in January 2007 every company that has produced or thought about producing a smartphone has had at some level a discussion about how it could create a product that emulates the iPhone. Companies have sought to understand why the iPhone is such a runaway success and tried to rub a little bit of that magic on their own products.
It's human nature and common sense. If you are getting your brains beat out by a game-changing product, you need to figure out why and what you can do to produce something that appeals to consumers for the same or similar reasons. Otherwise, you need to pack it up and go home.
This is true in most industries. When one company introduces an innovation that changes everything, competitors must adapt or die.
The great Irish poet and writer Oscar Wilde famously said, "Good writers borrow, great writers steal." It is the same in business and in virtually any other endeavor in life. If we do not learn lessons from those who are successful, we are doomed to failure.
At the same time, we can all agree that it is fundamentally unjust for anyone to blatantly rip off and profit from the genuine innovations of others. The question is, where do you draw that line? When does admiring and emulating a competing product that is kicking your butt become intellectual property theft?
This question is central to the trial currently taking place in San Jose between Apple and Samsung. Apple revolutionized the smartphone market when it launched the first iPhone and proceeded to stomp the field. It now argues that that it has been wronged because a competitor has successfully taken a page from its book in designing its own smartphones with a similar look and functionality.
Make no mistake: everyone has tried to emulate the iPhone, whether it was spelled out in an email or not. Every smartphone worth its salt today uses touchscreen technology and is rectangular in shape. Apple did not invent either of those characteristics, but it used them to great effect and continues to laugh all the way to the bank.
If Samsung had not taken a hard look at the iPhone and asked why it was successful--and what it could do to incorporate some of the same features in its own products--the only reasonable thing for the company to do would be stop making smartphones. The same goes for any other smartphone vendor.
The San Jose patent trial has exposed the fact that our patent system is fundamentally flawed. But anyone who has been paying attention already knew that. It's also brought to light a larger question: Where is the line between learning from the success of a competitor and stealing?
We may never be able to pinpoint where this line lays, and even a completely overhauled patent system may not be able to define it. But until we know where to mark that line, there won't be justice in the Apple-Samsung case or any other instance where a company conducts a thorough analysis of a competing product and tries to top it.
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