What’s the purpose of patents anyway?

Written by Nerissa Staggers

Nearly one week ago, a final verdict was entered for the high profile patent infringement case, that is Apple v. Samsung.

“Today’s verdict should not be viewed as a win for Apple, but as a loss for the American consumer. It will lead to fewer choices, less innovation, and potentially higher prices. It is unfortunate that patent law can be manipulated to give one company a monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners, or technology that is being improved every day by Samsung and other companies. Consumers have the right to choices, and they know what they are buying when they purchase Samsung products. This is not the final word in this case or in battles being waged in courts and tribunals around the world, some of which have already rejected many of Apple’s claims. Samsung will continue to innovate and offer choices for the consumer.” ~ Samsung via New York Times

Nearly one week ago, a final verdict was entered for the high profile patent infringement case, that is Apple v. Samsung. In sum, Apple brought a patent infringement action against Samsung claiming Samsung’s Galaxy cell phones and computer tablets infringed Apple’s trade dress, trademarks, utility and design patents. Samsung’s overall argument was that Apple was preventing them from creating an assortment of devices for consumers to choose from. The Supreme Court rendered 30 judgments and held in Apple’s favor granting damages to the tune of $1.05 billion.

Yes, this is a huge win for Apple, but let’s focus our attention to Samsung’s remarks regarding the verdict following its announcement:

“…It will lead to fewer choices, less innovation, and potentially higher prices…”

In light of this statement, we must consider what prompts our interest in this subject matter. What is the purpose of patent law anyway? The answer: Innovation. Indeed, both sides argued innovation as a basis for their defenses, but on the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Samsung’s position is like that of many scholars who believe that intellectual property rights, including patents, stifle or undermine the innovation process due to their overprotection. They take the position that creators need to build on other works in order to create work that is more innovative and progressive. But when does the act of taking the work of others draw the line? Is taking someone else’s work product to create something better considered innovation or cheating?

Indeed, much of the advances in technology today were evolved from previous works. However, true innovation is implementing something new from your own labor, resources, and intelligence. Society values originality, hard work, and perseverance. Even the concept of property law stems from John Locke’s Labor Theory. This is the theory that no one has any other rights than to their own labor, so whatever property derives from their own labor is theirs.

From this concept, intellectual property rights through patents were written into the United States Constitution. Under the Constitution, the purpose of patents is “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts”. The grant of the patent is the right of exclusion from “making, using, selling, offering for sale, or importing the patented subject matter during the patent’s term”. In order to do so, patents have the right of exclusion for a period of 20 years.

Yes, this is considered a “monopoly”. However, the primary purpose of the exclusion or monopoly is to protect the investment, time, and resources that a company has spent in creating something new, not to merely prevent competition. There needed to be an incentive to innovate, hence the monopoly acts as a reward to an innovator for their time in developing their invention. The reward is the confidence that the innovation will be free from interference for the exclusionary period, that a profit can be made from the marketing efforts of the patent, that the invention can maintain its economic value.

If there were no monopoly, it would deter innovation. Companies would take the benefit of someone else’s time, resources, and labor, and appropriate it for their own use without paying for it. When we allow freeloading in this way, we begin to undervalue the worth of a product, stagnate the amount of expenses directed towards researching efforts, thereby reducing the amount of attempts at innovation.

In addition, this monopoly forces companies to compete, not necessarily in terms of providing an assortment for consumers, but in terms of making their devices more revolutionary than the last. This is an opportunity for companies to think outside the box, to become visionaries, and to provide consumers with new advanced features that we’ve never seen before.

It may be frustrating for companies. Perhaps, some companies aren’t up for the innovation challenge. The patent system will continue to be an ongoing and evolving debate. However, in this Apple versus Samsung case, as between innovation and competition, innovation wins.

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About the author

Nerissa Staggers

Nerissa Staggers is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of A graduate of Temple University, Fox School of Business, and Texas Southern University, Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Nerissa Staggers is an analytical thinker and an appreciator of the arts. She’s worked in the fashion industry for several years in New York City prior to obtaining her law degree, taking on buying, production, and management roles. Her interests expand beyond just fashion to entertainment, media, and entrepreneurship. She loves the idea of linking the worlds of creativity, business, and law. Intellectual Property law is that link. She completed intellectual property coursework at New York Law School as a visiting student to further concentrate on this area. The purpose of this site is to support artists and small businesses by helping to protect their creative interests. Outside of work, Nerissa enjoys volunteering and serving on non-profit boards in her local community.

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