Apple’s Patent Win Is Bad For Us All

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Look, I get it. It’s a great story, maybe the greatest in the history of American business. From Day One, Apple did things the right way: clean, elegant, beautiful. But they were brought to their knees by Microsoft’s colossal mediocrity. Their visionary founder was forced out. They teetered on the brink. And then–bam! They were saved (ironically, by Microsoft.) They regained their footing.

And then they built one of the most remarkable corporate empires that has ever been constructed. And they did it by doing things their way. Clean. Elegant. Beautiful. Insanely great.

So I can see why people who were Apple users during the dark days have a messianic zeal. Their ultimate triumph, after such long suffering at the brutal hands of inferiors, must seem to them more than remarkable. It must seem righteous. Add that to one of the weirdest and most unexpected things about the twenty-first century–the extent to which so many people defensively identify with the operating system on their phone–and Apple must seem like a living testament to the ultimate victory of truth, justice, and the American way.

But there’s nothing even remotely admirable about their latest coup. The road to today’s American patent system was paved with good intentions, but it has become a walking catastrophe, like a natural disaster that won’t go away, or even a kind of monster perpetually stalking the tech industry. And Apple’s knight in shining armor just went and retained the monster’s services.

There was a kind of understanding. Maybe you signed on to using patents only defensively. Maybe you wasted billions on patent portfolios to ensure a kind of Cold War mutual-assured-destruction détente. But you didn’t cut a deal with the monster unless you absolutely had to.

Apple didn’t have to. But they did anyways. Was it effective? Hell, yes–in many ways. And most of them are bad for everyone.

Of course it’s perfectly understandable that Apple would act in their own self-interest for the sake of a billion dollars (not to mention Steve Jobs’s declaration of “thermonuclear war.”) But this time they shouldn’t be celebrated. They should be castigated. Their deal with the patent monster wasn’t the right thing to do for anyone else but them–and that includes their users. Competition from Android makes iOS better, and vice versa.

More generally, thanks to the patent monster, the tech industry is lost in a legal swamp, its visibility occluded by a thick and noxious cloud of FUD, stalked by vicious trolls. Thanks to Apple’s latest move, the swamp is now deeper, the fog thicker, the patent trolls more deadly. No fanboy anywhere, no matter how devoted, should be applauding.

Image credit: Ian Boyd, Flickr.