To people who aren’t avid tech buffs, a Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone looks and acts an awful lot like an iPhone — so much so that, when California-based Apple sued the Korean firm Samsung for patent infringement, a Silicon Valley jury was likely to find for the hometown electronics maker on at least some counts. When jurors awarded Apple more than $1 billion in damages recently, the company was quick to paint the result as a victory for innovators whose hard work is stolen by others.
Yet Apple’s victory was far more resounding than the circumstances warranted. The jury upheld patents even for seemingly obvious design features — for instance, the iPhone’s rectangular shape and rounded corners. Must other companies make their phones triangular and pointy? At least in consumer electronics, the US patent system may be discouraging the kind of technological innovation that patents exist to protect.