Imitation through innovation – who cares if Apple copied Samsung?

feature-smartphone-200The web has been abuzz these past few weeks with details of the Apple versus Samsung lawsuit. The case has offered a rare glimpse at how these two companies operate, as the trial seeks to answer the question: Did Samsung copy Apple?

But there is another question that’s much more relevant to the future of innovation in the technology industry: Would we all be better off if we allowed – even encouraged – companies to copy one another?

This isn’t the first time Apple has been involved in a high-stakes patent case. If you go back to the mid-1990s, there was Apple’s famous ”look and feel’’ lawsuit against Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. Apple’s rationale back then was eerily similar to the one it’s using today against Samsung: The company argued that it had innovated in creating a particular graphical user interface, which Microsoft had copied – and that if the rest of Apple’s competitors did the same, it would be impossible for the company to keep innovating. Apple ended up losing the case.

But here’s the thing: Apple didn’t stop innovating. Instead, it came out with the iMac. Then came OS X, the iPod, the iPhone and, most recently, the iPad. Given that the underlying reason Apple has brought cases like these to court is to enable it to continue innovating, it’s hard not to wonder: If copying halts innovation, why hasn’t Apple stopped innovating? The fact that other companies have supposedly infringed on Apple’s patents hasn’t stopped, or even slowed, the firm’s ability to innovate. If anything, it has only seemed to accelerate it. Apple hasn’t been able to rest on its laurels; to return to profitability and eventually become one of the world’s most valuable companies, Apple has had to innovate as fast as possible.

This point is worth considering more deeply in the larger debate over intellectual property protection. An excerpt from Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman’s book, The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, recently published in The Wall Street Journal, made exactly the same point. Most people assume that without protection from copying, innovation stops. However, and somewhat counter-intuitively, Raustiala and Sprigman show that rather than stifling innovation, there are plenty of examples of industries that have actually thrived because they are so open to copying.

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