Apple: Patent reformer or hypocrite?

As a growing number of American companies push Congress to enact legislation limiting frivolous patent litigation, one company is hardly practicing what it preaches on Capitol Hill.

Apple, the one-time Washington outsider that spent more than 3 million dollars on 2013 lobbying efforts, remains locked in one of the costliest patent fights ever. The hypocrisy is palpable, but more importantly, the societal and economic implications are tremendous – especially for the African American community. Legislators should take note and do what they can to discourage Apple’s brazen tactics before it is too late.

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In a court case beginning on March 31, Apple is set to do battle again with Samsung on patents Apple alleges were infringed upon, while at the same time asking that Samsung pay Apple $40 for every existing Samsung smartphone sold in the U.S. At issue are features such as slide-to-unlock and autocorrect technology. The demands are unprecedented and run counter to the goals of patent reform. In fact, it is a precise example of errors plaguing the American patent system, and the possible effects on rural and minority communities are immense.

Consider that, according to a February Pew study, a higher percentage of African Americans own smartphones than whites, using the devices as their primary means to access the Internet. Then consider that 70 percent of African Americans own Android operating phones, perhaps due to the considerable price difference between an iPhone and many Samsung models ($650 versus $276 on average), available for purchase at stores like 7/11 without a long-term contract. Last year alone, 43 percent of smartphone purchases were devices costing less than $200, according to data from the International Data Corporation (IDC).

Now imagine a world where this would no longer be possible. What would happen?

In short, the very thing that has helped bridge what many call the “digital divide” – an ability to reach the power of the Internet through relatively inexpensive devices instead of costly computers – would be severely threatened, all because one company refuses to compete with the other. Increased costs, or the possible ban of some Samsung products as Apple has repeatedly sought, would without question disproportionately affect those Americans who are using their mobile devices for their primary Internet access by making it harder for them to acquire the technology that best meets their needs.

It is certainly an interesting tactic for a company that avoided more than $2 billion in taxes in 2011 alone, but given that Apple has filed over two dozen lawsuits in just the last few years, perhaps it should come as no surprise. Nor should it shock us that Apple, a company that has gone on record as saying it has no interest in selling low cost phones, wants to knock down those who are. But just because Apple is struggling to compete and losing market share to its competitors by the day, does not mean it can behave like the trolls legislators are trying to address with their reform efforts.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.), author of the Innovation Act (HR 3309) recently wrote that “At its core, abusive patent litigation is a drag on our economy and stifles innovation.” In the current dispute between Apple and Samsung, innovation, and in turn, minority communities, stand in the crosshairs. In the quickly-evolving technology world, we need greater innovation and adoption, not less.

Rather than continue this fight, I call on Apple and its powerful team of Washington representatives and allies to settle its dispute behind closed doors. Instead of duking it out in the courts, companies like Apple should negotiate reasonable agreements with their competitors and move on. The private marketplace should decide which mobile device makers prevail based on the only things that matter – which company provides the best products and services to consumers at the best prices.

Alford is president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

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