Picasso wrote "good artists copy, but great artists steal." Le Corbusier stole it and said "Good architects borrow, but great architects steal." Both stole it from T.S. Elliot, who wrote:
One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.
As an architect and designer, this has always been an issue of importance: what is original, what is copying, and what is homage, learning from what has come before, acknowledging it and building on it. There were rules and standards going right back to Vitruvius, and nobody ever got sued for copying Palladio. But knocking off the building next door? That's actionable.
But what of Samsung and Apple? Many are questioning whether the jury got it right, and whether Apple's patents were reasonable. In the New York Times, Nick Wingfield describes designer Bill Flora's mixed reaction to the decision:
Mr. Flora is concerned, for example, that Apple’s patent on the pinch-to-zoom function covers a gesture that now is so common that touch screen products without it would be like cars with square or triangular steering wheels.
Now I have to say, the first time I ever did a pinch-to-zoom I let out an audible "wow." I had never seen anything like it. I also remember when the original iPhone came out, a lot of people said that it would never catch on; the only smartphones at the time, Blackberries and Palm Treos, had keyboards. Who could imagine a smart phone without one?
Jony Ives and Steve Jobs did. They designed it, they figured out the ways to navigate around it, they figured out how to build it and they patented it.
In a wonderful series in Core77 on the meaning of design patents, attorney Michael Hages lists questions a designer should ask themselves before they go running to the lawyer for a design patent, including:
- What individual features of your design would you be upset to find in another product?
- What about those features is unique or how are they used in a unique way in the context of your overall design?
- What would a copyist likely change about the design to try and avoid a basic design patent while making a knock-off the design?
One could think of a long list of things about the iPhone that were unique and used in a unique way, and that if I was the designer, would object seeing them knocked off. Just because they become totally obvious and logical in retrospect doesn't make them public; it just proves the point about what good ideas they are, and why they are even more deserving of protection for a period of time. Hages concludes that "designs are assets and investments to be protected."
It is not as if the iPhone is a perfect design; there are a lot of things about it that suck beyond the keyboard. It is designed for looks, not ergonomics; it is hard to tell top from bottom, front from back and it is easy to drop. Yet everybody copies the bad as well as the good and then wonder why Apple sues.
I am not in the tank for Apple these days and am even considering going back to Windows, but I believe that designers have rights and deserve protection from copycats. There are many different ways of doing things; perhaps if other firms gave industrial design the importance that Apple does, they might think of some of them.