Apple, Motorola, Android Lawsuits a Tangled Web of Charges

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2010-11-02

Apple, Motorola, Android Lawsuits a Tangled Web of Charges

You'd think this would be an easy story to write. You start off with a leading paragraph that says, basically, that everybody is suing everybody else. You could describe it as a sort of a rugby scrum, but with suits and briefcases. And believe it or not, it seems there are even more players than a rugby scrum-lots more.

The ruling instinct in this case seems to be that when you're not having enough fun making tons of money, why not have even more fun trying to keep someone else from making quite so much money too? 

If all of that sounds confusing, that's only because it is. As of today, as far as I can tell, Apple is suing Motorola over the use of multitouch, which was actually invented by Microsoft. Microsoft is suing Motorola over something obscure related to Android-I'm guessing it's the use of something called "software," which was actually invented by Grace Hopper.

Meanwhile, Motorola is suing Apple for more alleged infringements. Surprisingly, nobody is suing anyone else for the use of "radio," which was invented by Loomis (not Marconi, although by the time Marconi came along, Loomis was dead and couldn't sue).  

If this weren't such a time-honored tradition in the technology business, I'd bemoan how those resources could be better used to do something like inventing products with working antennas. But that's kind of beside the point. After all, Robert Goddard's widow sued NASA and won because the soon-to-be-out-of-space space agency was using Goddard's invention of the liquid fuel rocket without permission or royalties. NASA had to pay up, not that it made much difference in NASA's ability to run a space program. 

I could go on and talk about the suit by engineer Philo Farnsworth: Farnsworth sued RCA and its leader, General David Sarnoff, over the royalties for his invention of something called "television." Like Mrs. Goddard, Farnsworth won, and went on to invent useful technology gadgets such as nuclear weapons parts.

But in this case, we're talking about a pair of guys named Steve. One of them really has been an innovator and there's no question about his contributions to technology. The other is primarily a business executive, but he's been the enabling force behind some innovations as well. 

Lawsuits Have Little to Do with Who the Real Innovators Are


Steve Jobs clearly had a role in inventing a lot of interesting items, but he also had a role in borrowing ideas from others without necessarily asking for them first. I've already mentioned the multitouch screen, but Apple's most basic innovation, the Macintosh GUI (graphical user interface), actually didn't come from Apple. The company borrowed that from the Xerox Star computer, which really was ahead of its time with a GUI, a mouse and all of those other neat things we take for granted now. 

And Steve Ballmer didn't invent anything as far as I know, and he doesn't claim to have. But he certainly found innovative ways to sell his company's products, and he enabled a lot of other inventions in a wide variety of technology areas. So now Microsoft is suing Motorola over infringements in Android, which is actually produced by Google. 

You'll notice that none of these lawsuits seems to have any relationship to who actually invented anything. Apple is suing Motorola because it's afraid of the success of the Droid, which Motorola makes for Verizon Wireless. Motorola is suing Apple to make it either back off or settle.

Apple isn't suing Google, probably because it's afraid of what Google might do in its search engine. For example, you might type in "Apple" and be presented with a photo of a type of globular fruit commonly grown on trees worldwide, but which probably originated in China. You'd have to go to the second page to find out about iPhones or computers. 

Now, it may appear that I don't take these legal machinations seriously. This is, of course, incorrect. They are serious, if only because they keep thousands of lawyers busy creating briefs that no one will ever read and preparing cases that no court will ever hear.

Heaven only knows that unemployment is bad enough in Silicon Valley without a bunch of unemployed lawyers wandering the streets and getting in trouble. Besides, Apple has $50 billion in cash that it has no idea what to do with. Since paying actual dividends to its stockholders is out of the question, why not spend it on lawyers? 

So yes, these lawsuits are serious. They are also a time-honored, deeply traditional activity in the technology business that otherwise has few traditions. So by all means, encourage these folks to keep on suing each other. It helps the economy. Oh, and it gives columnists something to write about on otherwise boring Mondays.

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