All eyes are fixed on the Apple v. Samsung trial currently playing out in the courts. For those following patent law, this is perhaps the latest “Trial of the Century.” Two of the world’s biggest computing and consumer electronics giants are going at one another. So it’s not much of a surprise that a lower profile case between Apple and a Taiwanese university has flown under the radar. This time it’s Apple that’s on the defense. Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University alleges that Apple infringes on its patents with the Siri voice assistant. In particular, Apple is accused of infringing on patents relating to voice recognition software. The lawsuit is curious. Typically, it is American firms accusing Asian ones of stealing their intellectual property. For example, Apple was famously able to delay shipments of HTC smartphones to the United States due to patent wars between Cupertino and the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer. For its part, the university sees itself as leading a charge for all of Taiwan, rather than just protecting its own IP. Chen Xisan, director of the school’s legal department was quoted as saying that “We want to protect Taiwan’s patents from being infringed upon” and “we want to help the local industry.” Apple has remained mum, but the university’s concerns seem to have some merit.
The Taiwanese government recently warned local businesses that a patent related to the MacBook Air might be used to prevent them from selling their own ultrabooks. The lawsuit was filed on both sides of the Strait of Formosa, in the Repubic and the People’s Republic. The PRC-based Zhizhen Network Technology is also suing Apple, claiming that they infringed on a patent related to a chat bot system while crafting Siri. The first issue raised by any patent lawsuit is whether the lawsuit is frivolous or not. While difficult or impossible to prove, many suspect that patent courts are being used for reasons other than protecting IP. Specifically, some allege that major tech firms are engaged in patent trolling against one another, filing lawsuits and attempting to force their opponents to hemorrhage money. Much writing on the so-called “Patent Wars” has revolved around this issue. The bickering between Microsoft, Apple and Google over Motorola royalties was seen by many as an example of patent trolling. The next issue to consider is to what degree larger companies care about infringing on the IP of smaller companies. No matter how strong a case is, Apple, Google and Samsung can steamroller over smaller companies with superior legal resources, offering pittances for settlements. It’s not far-fetched to say that Apple has a vested material interest in harassing an entire country’s tech industry, driving them out of the international market. Indeed, the specter of using patent trolling as a way to attack not just a rival, but an entire sector of the world economy raises a whole host of other issues.
Private lawsuits can act as a sort of non-governmental tariff, acting both as an unofficial “tax” on an industry and a chilling effect against further innovation. The chilling effect is the most troubling of options. The world of tech must rely upon innovation if it is to deliver on its own promise and potential. Using the courts to impede innovation doesn’t just violate the public trust. It also makes it harder for innovations to come from “the provinces” -- whether that be Taiwan or some guy building a computer with his bare hands in Cupertino, California. Indeed, there’s more than a little irony here: The plucky little startup that became the world leader in computers is accused of ripping off today’s plucky little startups. Keep your eyes on this one. After the Samsung trial closes look for more attention on this case with broad-reaching implications.