What do rounded corners and red shoes have to do with patents?

Ipad patent rectangle

Earlier this week Apple was granted a patent for the rounded corners on iPads, which left a lot of people shaking their heads at U.S. patent law and more people worrying about Apple suing the pants off everyone. But maybe it’s not about that at all. Maybe it’s just a stake in the ground.

Business Insider this morning has a post with a great title: “Apple’s Laughable New iPad Patent Reveals The Absurdity Of Our Patent System”, which is both great link bait and a valid point. Because, yes, it seems completely absurd to patent rounded corners—Apple iPad Design Patent—but so is patenting shoes with red soles. Think I’m kidding? French shoe designer Louboutin has a patent in the U.S. for shoes with red soles. In fact they just resolved a legal battle with Yves St. Laurent over who can have shoes with red soles.

You see the point here, and the point of the patents isn’t protecting intellectual property. If it really was, then SpaceX would be patenting the snot out of what they are making, but they’re not—Elon Musk Explains Why SpaceX Doesn’t Patent Anything. Why? To protect their intellectual property. Remember, patent filings are public and offer an amazing amount of detail on the development of the widget, box, screen, or device to teleport people to Mars (kidding). So from the perspective of SpaceX, they’re better off protecting trade secrets than telling the world (read China) what they’ve made.

What Apple (and Louboutin) are doing to putting a stake in the ground that they can then burn counterfeiters and other infringers on. Apple probably isn’t going after Google or Samsung or any other major player (I say maybe, based on the laughable patent article), they want (and need) a weapon against people making knock off iPads.

Hussey s Reaping Machine Project Gutenberg etext 19547
Hussey Reaper

Is this what patent law was made for? Yes, in someways. It’s designed to protect innovation and the corresponding investment in R&D, but it’s also to help companies protect against counterfeits.You make something that claims to be an iPad, beyond all the other arrows in its quiver to loft at opponents, Apple can now also say, “Oh, by the way, we have the patent on rounded corners like that…”

Interestingly enough, I have a family connection to patent law and getting things done right. One of my ancestors, Obed Hussey, made a mechanical reaping machine (harvester) and was in fierce competition with Cyrus McCormick. The McCormick reaper eventually won out after numerous patent battles. McCormick’s company eventually became International Harvester. As my dad liked to tell it, the Hussey reaper was better, but McCormick was better at filing patents. Oh and this was in the 1830s. My ancestor had the patent first (1833), McCormick later (1834). How did it settle out? Well…I don’t have stock in a giant farm machinery company I’ll tell you that.

Patents are not just tools of innovation, they are tools of marketing. And in all is fair in love, war, and marketing.

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