I had never really thought about how I unlock my phone until today. And, now that I think about it, I’ve had to learn a bunch of different ways to do it in the last ten years or so: hitting the “Talk” button, sliding a keyboard out, unhinging the screen from the buttons, etc. While I would like to take pride in my quick learning ability, I think it’s safe to assume the vast majority of people do not have a problem unlocking their phones.

So it came as a surprise when I saw that Apple had unsuccessfully challenged a ruling in German court denying it a patent on its “Slide to Unlock” feature in Europe. Not surprised by the ruling, more so surprised because, who cares? Before I dive into the “Who cares?” part, I wanted to quickly touch on the ruling. First, the only thing less than my number of loyal readers is the amount of people who would want to read the official patent originally granted in 2010. But if you simply read the title, you would see that the patent was for “Unlocking a device by performing gestures on an unlock image.” It is unclear how that was at one time considered a patentable invention. Second, the German court found that Apple wasn’t even the first company to come up with it: a Swedish company invented this before Apple did. I would consider the whole fight fairly embarrassing.

Back to the “Who cares?” part. While iPhones are cool, I am pretty sure people don’t choose them over other smartphones because of their state-of-the-art unlock feature (me, personally, I like it because I know it makes people happy when my texts show up blue rather than green). But this brings me to a larger point. These enormous technology companies (Apple, Samsung, Motorola) spend seemingly just as much time innovating as they do wasting time by protecting their innovations from other companies that want to steal their ideas. For example, in 2014 Samsung had to hand over almost $120 million to Apple for infringing its patents. And while some important features understandably need to be protected, why companies waste time and resources protecting unimportant features rather than continuing to innovate is beyond me. As in, why did Apple spend likely outrageous legal fees trying to protect this patent rather than come up with a better, newer unlock feature?

I guess the main reason would be that protecting your patents is the only way to both establish your company as different and then profit on that foundation. Except that Tesla Motors recently open sourced all of its patents (effectively allowing anyone to copy them without the threat of prosecution) and they are now worth around $25 billion (and, while pretty farfetched, their CEO Elon Musk, one of the smartest men in the world, thinks they’ll be worth $700 billion by 2025). And while there are many, many variables that go into this ability to still be profitable despite unprotected patents, I would argue one is Tesla’s continuing drive to innovate rather than waste time looking over its shoulder.

So, the next time you unlock your phone, besides being bummed about how no one cool has texted you, think about how much money has gone into attempting to protect that feature (rather than coming up with a cooler new one). And how instead of building barriers around piles of money, we should be breaking down those barriers in the name of innovation.

Jackson Sattell

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