Steve Jobs: A Legacy In Patents

Steve Jobs: A Legacy In Patents

Phil Goldbach is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School, and is currently enrolled in Professor Ikechi Mgbeoji’s Patents class, in Fall 2011. As part of the course requirements, students are asked to write a blog on a topic of their choice.

Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple Inc., died on October 5, 2011, after a lengthy and well-publicized battle with cancer.  He was 56.  Over the past week, the media has been abuzz with stories of Jobs’ life and accomplishments, heaping much praise and providing a few critiques.  A small but sizable number of recent news stories have focused on one particular aspect of Jobs’ professional career – his personal involvement in his company’s intellectual property, in general, and its patents, more specifically.
According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Steve Jobs is listed as an inventor on an astonishing 313 patents.  Throw in additional patent applications currently undergoing prosecution and the number reaches 342.  To put this into perspective, Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, has his name on a mere 9 patents, while Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin appear on just over a dozen.

As laid out on this categorized New York Times website, Steve Jobs’ patents cover many of the products that are seemingly ubiquitous in today’s culture, including the Macintosh personal computer, the iPhone, the iPod and the iPad.  Most are categorized as design patents, which are defined by the USPTO as consisting of “the visual ornamental characteristics embodied in, or applied to, an article of manufacture.” (In Canada, these would not be considered patents but, rather, industrial designs.)  Some of Jobs’ notable design patents include those for the original Macintosh 128K computer (filed in 1983), the “hockey puck” mouse, the original iPod and even a staircase.

Not all of Jobs’ patents were for designs.  His name also appears on multiple utility patents relating to the Macintosh operating system with titles such as: “Method and system for providing an embedded application toolbar”.  On that particular invention, Jobs is listed as first inventor.  Additionally, the aforementioned staircase design patent has an accompanying utility patent for the structure itself.  In combination, these patents provide legal protection for the glass staircases that appear in many Apple Stores, suggesting Jobs’ personal involvement in widely diverse facets of his company.

So what are we to make of this impressive collection of patents?  How involved was Steve Jobs, personally, in these designs and inventions?  Alternatively, was his name added to the lists of inventors simply as a PR stunt?  In answer to the last of these questions: almost assuredly not.  As Microsoft Researcher Bill Buxton points out, “[d]oing so would not only invalidate the patent, it would expose the company and its brand to serious damage when revealed.”  Thus, Jobs almost certainly made some level of material contribution to all 313 patents.  According to Buxton, this intimate relationship to design and invention is what made Jobs a great manager.  Whether this strategy is a requirement for successful tech company CEOs is certainly up for debate.

Finally, any discussion of Steve Jobs and patents would be incomplete without at least mentioning the larger context of Apple Inc. and the technology patents it holds.  Over the last few years, this has been the focus of several prominent news stories, many of which were commented on in this blog.  For example, in July of this year, a consortium of companies that included Apple and Microsoft was the highest bidder for a number of Nortel patents at an unexpectedly high price of $4.5 billion.  This has largely been seen as a defensive move against Google’s rapid growth in the mobile device arena.  Apple has also been involved in several high-profile patent litigation suits, including ones against major cell phone producers, Samsung and HTC.  The suit against HTC, launched by Apple in 2010, included allegations that HTC infringed some 20 patents held by Apple.  As discussed previously in this blog, lawsuits such as Apple v. HTC raise complex issues such as: should software be patentable and does the current regime of patent protection stifle rather than promote innovation?

Thus, conversations about Steve Jobs and the technology patents he and his company held may be useful jumping off points for wider discussions about the state of modern patent law.  Moving further afield, we may wish to ask additional questions.  For example, was Jobs a “true inventor” or merely a popularizer of others’ ideas?  Or, what are the moral and environmental implications of our culture’s increasing obsession with disposal gadgets?  These are conversations that are undoubtedly worth having.  At the moment, though, it feels appropriate to simply focus on Steve Jobs’ impressive accomplishments and to think about the appreciation and glee he clearly felt for technology and design.