Yesterday I reported on a new computer that HP released called the Spectre One, and after looking at a few photos of the PC, it was quite easy to see that HP took their “inspiration” from Apple’s iMac when designing it. In this case, I felt that it was a very bold move by HP, and I could certainly understand Apple if they were to file a willful design infringement suit over this particular product. But after seeing a comment on the article from an AndroidPIT user named Dvoraak, it got me thinking about exactly how and when the process of taking inspiration from a product's design transcends into copying a product. My question is, how exactly do you draw a line between inspiration and copying when it comes to product design?
Does popularizing a design mean that you own it?
In yesterday's case, I felt that HP certainly had copied the iMac's design in almost every way. Even the smallest details like the keyboard form and trackpad seem to be a direct copy, and I’m sure HP is more than aware of this. But then I had another look at both computers (you can view them here), and on further inspection, you can see that there are some very subtle differences. Then I remembered that the iMac, like the iPhone and iPod, is unique because it’s a product with a unique design that Apple popularized. Notice I didn’t say create, but rather popularized.
Apple in particular is very strong when it comes to design, marketing, and creating trendy products. When it comes to inventing new products, you don’t see them do it very often. But when it comes to taking a product that already exists, revamping its design, and popularizing the hell out of it, their skills are second to none. The HP Spectre One does appear to be a direct copy, and to say that the iMac inspired its creation is an understatement. That being said..what about the Macbook? Doesn’t it basically look like every other laptop, only thinner and wrapped in aluminum? In terms of design, isn’t the iPod simply a "sleeker looking" MP3 player than the ones that existed years before it? Did Apple create rectangular MP3 players? Certainly not. Did they popularize them? They most certainly did.
But is it not fair to say that Apple basically did more or less the same as what HP did with the Spectre One? Didn’t they also take inspiration from existing laptop designs, and then put their own twist on them? If so, what gives them the right to prevent HP or Samsung from doing the same?
Inspiration vs copying vs stealing
To understand the difference, let’s take look at the definition of all 3 words:
- The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, esp. to do something creative: "flashes of inspiration".
- Copying: An imitation, reproduction, or transcript of an original.
- Stealing: To appropriate (ideas, credit, words) without right or acknowledgment, or, to take the property of others without permission or right.
To illustrate what I'm trying to get at, let’s have a look at 2 Blu-ray players from 2 different tier 1 companies. This one is from Sony:
And this one is from LG:
Sony (along with a few other companies in combined effort) is credited for creating the Blu-ray format. They then licensed the technology so that other companies could also build and sell Blu Ray players. But what about the design? Is it not fair to say that these 2 products look very similar in terms of shape and overall design? Is it fair to say that LG stole this design from Sony? Or were they simply inspired from it?
Karl Benz is often credited with created the first car, and in using similar designs to his original, does that mean that other car companies “stole” from him? That doesn’t seem realistic does it? In order to improve an existing piece of technology, you need to take inspiration from something, and in the majority of cases, technology that you see everyday in the store is simply a product that was inspired by another product.
EVERY company in the world is somewhat “guilty” of doing this, and this is why technology moves at such an incredible pace. But if you have a unique design for a particular product, is it not somehow fair to call that design “yours”?
The solution/cause of the problem?
That seems pretty fair, and in order to protect those designs and creations, a system was introduced as a way for inventors to have rights over their work and designs. That system is also one of the main source of problems in the world of innovation. I think you know what I’m referring to: Patents.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this article, where I’ll discuss why design patents are not only extremely complex, but can in many cases do more harm than good.
Information sources: Wikipedia
Picture credits: 4.bp.blogspot.com, gadgetlite.com, merriam-webster.com, and seanwes.com