Patenting the palm: When techology and users converge

In a recent op-ed for, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff compared Apple Inc.’s legal victory over Samsung to the early development of human speech. Imagine, Rushkoff writes, that in the early days of human language someone invented a word to represent some thought or emotion. Then imagine that this person patented the word they invented, and required everyone to pay him or her a dollar every time they uttered it.

Rushkoff’s allegory refers to Apple’s victory last month, when a jury upheld the company’s contention that Samsung had copied patented iPhone features and design elements in their smartphones.  Apple has subsequently demanded that Samsung recall the patent-infringing products.

Rushkoff concedes that a company such as Apple should be able to protect the distinctive look and feel of its products, but his concern arises from the details of Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung. For example: one of Apple’s charges was that Samsung ripped off their “pinch and zoom” function from the iPhone, which allows a user to zoom in or out of the screen image by swiping their thumb and forefinger together or apart on the screen surface.

The “pinch and zoom” patent worries Rushkoff because he considers it on par with a patent on the “pinch” gesture itself. Rushkoff argues that, regardless on which product the pinch and zoom gesture first appeared, the action has become internalized in the users. The ubiquity of the feature has made the gesture second nature. In essence Rushkoff’s argument sees human behavior converging with the emerging functions of our technology. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: we shape our tools, and our tools shape us. Regardless of your reaction to Rushkoff’s view, it is clear that as convergence continues the human element will be increasingly important.

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