Apple and Samsung's long-fought battle in the courts culminated in a knockdown blow to the South Korean technology giant.
The US courts gave the home team the victory, but the international debate over boundaries of intellectual property continues. Because while patents protect individual ideas, they also protect future prosperity. International law must do far more to ensure we do not slide into an age of imitation and stagnation.
Coming up with a completely new idea is not easy. With hundreds of years of ingenious invention behind us, design engineers have to push themselves further than ever before. It takes time, often a lot of money and entails great risk. So without reward, it is quite a thankless task.
The Apple-Samsung saga has largely surrounded whether a ruling in Apple's favour would instigate or frustrate invention. Similar court cases have suggested that some design features, including the popular "slide-to-unlock" function, are too obvious to deserve protection. The argument being that there simply is no other way to achieve the same function without following this natural evolution of smartphone innovation - a bizarre conclusion when you consider the number of smartphones not utilising it. That the feature is popular, is testament to its originality.
Dyson faced a similar contest in the British courts last year over the design rights to one of our barrel vacuum-cleaners only to face the opposite outcome to Apple in the US. The design was adjudged to be a natural way of displaying the technology. The reality is that those copying designs do so to try to trick users into thinking they are getting the same technology underneath the surface. It allows second-string manufacturers to ride on the coat-tails of those investing in research and development.
Ideas are treated differently to tangible things. We find it difficult to attribute a value to something we cannot see. To steal something you can pick up is considered theft. But an idea cannot be returned back to its owner – which surely makes it more serious. The patent system is supposed to safeguard against this. But at the moment the system is weighted in the favour of those looking to cut corners. It is the inventor that has to prove their idea has been stolen.
If an inventor finds that they have been ripped off, they are forced into a game of cat and mouse with the perpetrator. And more often than not, it is the perpetrator leading the accusations – and often winning. PwC reported that only 38 per cent of patent owners successfully enforced their patents in court from 1995 to 2009. Too often lawyers manipulate the semantics of the patents wording to narrow its significance – giving the offending party opportunity to slip in the inventor's wake.
Dyson spends over $2 million a week on new ideas. But we do this trusting that those ideas will be protected robustly. When protection is not upheld, designers and inventors lose faith. This presents the very real risk that we will stop inventing. This threats the future of growth of technology and more widely the global economy. Without the assurance of the patent safety net, nothing can be created that takes longer than the process of copying it.
Edward Linacre, a young inventor from Australia, won the James Dyson Award last year and wisely used his prize money to secure a patent for his invention. He did this to protect the time and effort and ingenuity that he had poured into his design. His device extracts water from the air to irrigate crops. And there are actually dozens of similar pieces of technology on the market. Each achieving their goal in a different way – with different effect. The key to Edward's design, and the reason that I awarded him first prize, was that it achieved its aim for a small cost – making it scalable. He took a problem and found a completely original solution.
For all inventors, from me to Edward Linacre, protecting ideas is a significant investment. As ideas become increasingly global in their reach, it becomes ever more important that protection is global in its reach.
Apple and Samsung have skirmished in so many countries because that protection is not ubiquitous. We need compatible systems and robust and enforced patents in every country. Or we run the risk of running out of ideas and idea creators.
The writer is founder and chief engineer of Dyson.