Economists are odd ducks. If you aren’t familiar with their lingo and way of talking, you might mistake cold calculation for psychopathy or brain injury. Case in point, a Forbes post by an economist on Apple’s recent patent victory over Samsung, which asks the question “Why Don’t Consumers Protest Apple’s Intellectual Property Bullying?“:Reading stories about Apple’s victory over Samsung in court over alleged infringement intellectual property I can’t help but think back to the protests over Apple’s labour standards in China, in particular in the Foxconn factories where iPhones were made. Despite the fact that these jobs were good factory jobs in China, and that they may simply lead to manufacturers to replace the workers with robots, consumers made a lot of noise over this and got Apple to subject itself to increased monitoring and pressed Foxconn into giving raises. But where are the protests of Apple’s attempts to squelch competition and reduce consumer choices through lawsuits and aggressive patenting?
This isn’t just Apple trying to get Samsung banned from selling these phones, this is effectively equivalent to Apple trying to get consumers banned from buying them. And yet I see little to nothing in the way of consumer protests.
Several readers wrote comments to the effect of “You idiot, don’t you understand what “Intellectual Property” means?” This is unfortunate. The author knows exactly what IP is, but is posing the provocative question in order to illustrate the fact that aggressive patenting has negative welfare effects on the economy overall by reducing competition and consumer choice. It’s a reasonable question, although presented in a rather ham-handed, cold-blooded economist fashion.
Then again, the answer, or possible answers, seem readily apparent, so I’m not sure why the post was concluded with “I don’t have an answer for this.” Really? Let’s see.
1. Passion — The passion that drove folks to protests against Apple/Foxconn working conditions were all about empathy towards fellow human beings. Whether you agree or disagree with the complaints (I personally thought they were way over the top and unfairly singled out Apple), you have to admit that they were emotional and driven by concerns with working conditions, child labour, etc.
Where’s the passion and human compassion in a patent case? And remember, this is coming from an IP lawyer who has more of an interest in these issues than most people. I don’t think we can compare a consumer’s inability to buy a mobile phone with a worker being forced to pull a 24-hour shift. Sure, the former is a direct effect on the consumer, while the latter is a concern for an unknown third party in another country, but that’s what empathy is all about. And don’t forget the media angle here. They have certainly been following this patent case very closely, but probably in muted tones. What makes for a better news story, a depressed worker committing suicide or the pinch-zoom patent? What’s the visual for the latter story, an empty shelf at a Best Buy?
2. The Law — The Apple/Foxconn protests involved alleged violations of labour law, while Samsung was found to be a patent infringer. So in one case, protesters were on the side of law and high labour standards. If folks complained about the Samsung decision, they would be going against the established legal regime and supporting an IP infringer. I’m not sure how many people see it in those terms, but having a jury announce that someone/some company committed an infraction does carry with it negative baggage, and most people are not going to second-guess a decision like that.
3. Complexity — If someone tells you that Apple is using underage Chinese slave labour to make iPhones, that’s easy to grasp. Whether it’s true or not is a separate issue. However, trying to get most folks to understand the Samsung dispute is a bit more difficult, and rousing their passions over such issues is a tall order. Patent cases are so complicated these days that I’d actually support the U.S. switching to judge-only adjudication for such disputes (i.e., no juries).
4. Cult of Mac — One reason so many folks were upset with Apple over Foxconn working conditions is that they felt betrayed and/or used. They were Apple customers and felt tainted. If only Apple stopped doing all those awful things, they could go back to using their iCrap without that annoying guilt. And yet, almost none of these people abandoned their phones, laptops and tablets, nor did they stop buying new equipment. Brand loyalty trumped compassion when it came to that purchasing decision.
Samsung doesn’t have that sort of connection with its customers. I’d personally rather have an S2 running Android than an iPhone, but that doesn’t mean I particularly care if that consumer choice has been taken away from me by a jury in San Jose. I’ll give the IP system the benefit of the doubt.
So why aren’t folks rioting and pillaging in San Jose over the verdict? I think the answer is quite clear. Whatever you might think of Apple’s aggressive IP strategy, that criticism isn’t likely to rise to the level of public protest.
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