BlackBerry Sues the CompetitionPosted: January 16, 2014
When patent law blocks innovation
Jesse Walker writes: Patents are supposed to foster innovation by restricting competition—in the Constitution’s words, to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” by giving inventors a temporary “exclusive Right” to their creations. But sometimes those restrictions can suppress innovation instead of encouraging it.
Consider the Typo Keyboard Case, which is supposed to start shipping to consumers this month. The idea behind the device is simple. Right now, people who prefer a smartphone with a physical keyboard basically have just one option, the BlackBerry. If you like real keyboards but prefer the iPhone’s operating system, you have to either put up with the BlackBerry’s software or put up with the iPhone’s virtual keyboard; no phone-maker offers a product that combines the best of both worlds. The Typo fills that gap. It’s a case that lets you slip a keypad over an iPhone and type the way the QWERTY gods intended, without a flat touchscreen that makes errors inevitable and without an algorithm that “corrects” words that weren’t errors in the first place.
The people who created the case have been very explicit about what they were doing. When a CNN correspondent discussed the device with Typo co-founder Ryan Seacrest—yes, the American Idol host—the reporter suggested that the product gives users “the best thing about a BlackBerry, within the iPhone.” Seacrest replied, “That’s kind of how this came to fruition.” Many press accounts have noted how much the Typo keyboard looks and feels like a BlackBerry keyboard; the phrase “BlackBerry clone” comes up a lot.
Enter BlackBerry’s lawyers. In a suit filed January 3, the company charged the upstart with violating three of BlackBerry’s patents and its trade dress. (A trade dress is a set of distinctive visual characteristics that reveal what company made a product—the shape of a glass Coca-Cola bottle, for example. They are legally protected in order to prevent customer confusion, so the premise here is that people might mistake the Typo for a BlackBerry product, even though it does not bear the BlackBerry logo and even though BlackBerry is not in the business of making cases for iPhones.) In addition to asking the courts to block sales of the Typo, BlackBerry is seeking triple damages….