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Apple vs. Samsung: Is copying theft or innovation?

Apple's big victory over Samsung underscores a central economic issue: What is the right balance between competition and copying?

September 04, 2012|By Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman

Jobs was right. While he has often been invoked as a visionary, he was, as Malcolm Gladwell recently described, "the greatest tweaker of his generation." On a visit in 1979 to the Xerox research center in Palo Alto, he became fascinated with a Xerox prototype computer that used a mouse and screen icons. Jobs (and company) took ideas he'd seen at Xerox, refined them and made them central features of the Macintosh.

The freedom to copy built Apple, and gave us the great products we enjoy today.

The surprising upside of copying has implications for how we think about our increasingly ideas-based economy. Consider one more example. In the 1980s, Hollywood tried to eliminate a fearsome new copying technology — the VCR — that the industry's chief lobbyist at the time, Jack Valenti, memorably likened to the Boston Strangler. But the home video market, with all its copying, poured many more dollars into the studios' coffers than piracy was ever able to steal away.

Major industries can survive in the face of copying, and sometimes even thrive due to copying. Apple's victory against Samsung does not change that. It just may make the next Apple all the less likely to launch.

Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman are law professors at, respectively, UCLA and the University of Virginia. They are the authors of "The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation."

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