The recent decision by nine jurors of a U.S. District Court, which held that Samsung had infringed on Apple’s patents on several features of its smartphone technology, serves to highlight the problem that patent law is beginning to experience in the age of technology. While it’s unquestionable that Samsung’s phones did substantially resemble (or copy, if you prefer) Apple’s product, it remains an open question as to whether or not those features should be able to be patented at all.
An analogy can help make this issue clear. Someone originally invented the automobile, and it largely resembled its present form, with brakes under a steering wheel and a gear shift to the driver’s side. Now, suppose that person had patented the steering wheel-brake-gear shift alignment available in that vehicle. What would other car manufacturers do? I suppose they could have created a system of hand breaks, though that sounds dangerous and impractical. More importantly though, it would have done absolutely nothing to serve the public interest. Indeed, it would have been quite obviously bad for the public, either creating a company with a monopoly on cars or else creating a wide range of different vehicle types, making learning to drive much more difficult.
The bigger point is, when it comes to technological innovation, a large part of the process involves imitating (and improving upon) what others have done in the past. But the way our patent system is presently devised, the first company with an innovative idea can patent many different unique features and effectively stifle competition against its products. It’s anti-free market, and it’s anti-public interest. Well, excuse me, but I still believe in both the free market and the public interest.