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Inspiration Vs Copying: Are Design Patents Stifling Innovation? Pt.1

Inspiration Vs Copying: Are Design Patents Stifling Innovation? Pt.1

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

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  • I like the way you think bro :-)

  • And I hope HTC and Samsung sue the crap out of Apple LOL. I'll keep saying they weren't wrong but they were definitely stupid and that kind of stupidity deserves a beat down.

  • I COMPLETELY agree as well, which is why I very much hope Apple sues the hell out of HP :-D

  • I agree they aren't an exception but I'll say there's a big difference between taking bits and pieces of ideas from many companies and incorporating them in a product, and duplicating 90% of one successful product.

  • I completely agree! Without the iPhone, Android phones would look like BlackBerrys. But Apple pulls the design card a bit too often, but all while ignoring the fact that their flagship products were also inspired by those of another company. THAT is what irritates me the most.

    They act as if they are an exception to the rule, but they clearly aren't.

  • Form factor isn't as much of an issue as people make it out to be. Yeah, Apple included form factor in the suit but it was part of a pattern they were trying to demonstrate (unsuccessfully in the rest of the world). To say that Android manufacturers weren't looking closely (sometimes too closely) at the iPhone when they designed their devices is at best naive and at worst blatantly self-serving. Why wouldn't they? Apple created and owned the current smart-phone market. If you wanted to take any of that market for yourself you had to show that your device was just as good and better, so you take all the functional features of an iPhone and then add some improvements of your own. Since it made cheaper alternatives available to the populace, the practice became justifiable to most. I'm convinced Apple's going to regret the lawsuits before the end but that doesn't mean they were wrong.

  • @Dvoraak - The Sony example you gave is EXACTLY what I mean though. Sure, they license the technology to play Blu-rays (and get paid for it), and that makes sense. But did they require a license fee on the actual shape of the Blu-ray player itself? And if they didn't, why can Apple get away with saying a rectangular tablet is infringement on their design?

    Isn't it kind of the same thing? (remember, I'm only discussing design here..not software or technology (real patents..LOL).

    Also, the example you gave about HP is completely valid. I don't understand how Apple is able to get away with it.

  • Well, since that HP desktop started this train of thought, I'll refer back to it. Add white molding to the bottom of the monitor and replace the HP logo with a Pear. Then take Linux and duplicate Apple's OS. In effect you'd have a black market duplicate and by current Apple bashing standards that should be completely legitimate because you can't lay claim to any designs. Actually, the current mood of internet users in general says there's no such thing as intellectual property. Is that really good for anyone?

    The Blu-ray example doesn't really fit considering Sony is getting paid by every other manufacturer. If they'd kept it to themselves and let the other companies figure out ways to play the same discs they'd be lawsuit happy too.

  • @Vishi - Good points, but those are more focused on software vs actual design. What I'm mostly referring to is the design of the product in general (shape, curves, ect).

    Samsung did a no no with the icons..that I agree with. But when it comes to the Galaxy Tab 10.1 being found guilty of design infringement, I don't see how they legally won that case. In terms of actual design, they did nothing different than what Apple did with the Macbook: take an existing design, wrap it in aluminum, and call it ours.

    Software is another issue all together though. Patents are SUCH a complicated issue!

  • vishi Sep 12, 2012 Link to comment

    what about taking the elements, key elements of ones design..means if u want to innovate, why samsung made a design with a central button that works just the way the central Ios button works, & touchwiz launcher app drawer can also good look without making it like ios's home screen?? there are lots of designs that can be employed & which do help in innovation, take a look at htc or motorola for that matter!

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