There seems to be a growing sense of exceptionalism going around Silicon Valley these days – what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander. Large tech companies are trying to manipulate laws and regulations to get a competitive edge while regular folks are left to deal with the fall out. The latest example of the “X law should only apply when it benefits me” logic comes by way of the on-going patent wars between smartphone providers Apple and Samsung.
In 2011, Apple filed suit against Samsung claiming the company made smartphones that infringed on patents currently held by Apple. Today, the companies remain embroiled in several lawsuits with billions of dollars on the line. Apple’s main gripe is that Samsung has apparently infringed on various patents in the production of its Android smartphones. Ironically, a federal jury in Texas just found Apple liable of patent infringement to the tune of $532.9 million for willfully using another company’s patents in its iTunes software. Even still, Apple has been granted monetary damages for Samsung’s infringement of three patents. Now, the company is seeking to prevent Samsung from “making, selling, developing, or advertising” smartphones containing “infringing features in its products.”
Apple made $182.35 billion last year, resulting in $39.51 billion in profits being added to the company’s bottom line for 2014. It was ranked the most successful company in the world…ever…based on its fourth quarter performance. Yet, it’s claiming that Samsung should be effectively banned from making and selling several models of its smartphones so as not to place in jeopardy Apple’s competitive position. A bit of Shakespeare is apropos for these theatrics: “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The lady, of course, in this instance is Apple.
Not only are Apple’s actions ludicrous, but they are very dangerous and run the risk of increasing the digital divide. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 90% of American adults own cell phones while 58% own smartphones. People of color slightly over-index the national averages with 59% of African Americans and 61% of Hispanics owning smartphones, and 90% and 92%, respectively, owning cell phones. Even though a pervasive digital divide means far too many people of color and members of low-income communities don’t have broadband at home, 60% of cellphone owners use their mobile devices to get online. Of all American smartphone owners, 52% own androids while 42.7% own iPhones.
So what does this tell us? Smartphones, with their ability to enable the use of varied applications and word processing programs, make all the difference in the world between the digitally connected and those who are on the wrong side of the digital divide. Even still, not everyone can afford a $600 iPhone, and so the Android market has become essential to ensuring that people not only have a choice in the kind of smartphone devices they purchase, but also that they are able to affordably access the web.
The potential for smartphones to bridge the digital divide countered against the cost of obtaining a smartphone device makes Apple’s law suits against Samsung over the past four years all the more ridiculous. It’s one thing to claim a competitor is infringing upon your patents. It’s quite another to seek injunctive relief (meaning that the android phones containing the allegedly infringing patents would have to be taken off the market) disconnecting people from the affordable technology that allows them to get online in the first place.
United States District Judge Lucy H. Koh, authoring the opinion of the Court in Apple v. Samsung in 2014, got it right when she determined that “the principles of equity do not support a permanent injunction” in this case. Even assuming Samsung did, in fact, infringe on three patents held by Apple, she said, Apple has not and cannot demonstrate that it suffered any irreparable harm from the exploitation of these patents, it did not experience any loss to its sales or reputation because of any patent infringement, and it didn’t make the case that Samsung was the actual cause of any such harm.
There are certainly those instances in which patent infringement, especially in the tech sector, harms the public interest and places a company and its intellectual property in danger. This, however, is not such a case. Not only would the public interest be harmed if Samsung couldn’t produce or sell its smartphones – the average cost of an Android is $254, while the average cost of an iPhone is $687. But it’s incredibly hard for Apple, which just had the most profitable quarter of any company in the world in the recorded history of mankind, to seriously argue that the production of competitive smartphones containing portions of ostensibly infringing patents somehow damages its reputation and financial standing.
The tech game almost inevitably breeds overlap in products and ideas. While some sort of action may be required to compensate parties from having their ideas coopted and exploited by others for profit, people would suffer if the standard Apple is trying to promote in its dispute against Samsung was allowed to stand. As a society that increasingly relies on smartphones to conduct just about every facet of our lives, we cannot afford to allow behemoth corporations to pretend that law and equity require a specific result that, in truth, only maximizes that company’s bottom line. Apple is no innocent bystander here, and the real balance of equity we should be focused on is the impact on real people who would truly lose out and fall deeper in the cracks of the digital divide if options for affordable smartphones are taken out of production.