A Thought Regarding the Old Apple-v.-Microsoft ‘Look and Feel’ Lawsuit

A bunch of readers have emailed regarding yesterday’s piece on the Apple-HTC patent suit to ask why I didn’t compare it to Apple’s ill-fated “Look and Feel” lawsuit against Microsoft. I don’t think the comparison is all that interesting or apt, basically.

For one thing, that suit was a copyright case, not a patent case. I think it’s fair to say that’s an entirely different ballgame legally. For another, the personnel are completely different. The entirety of that dispute with Microsoft took place during Steve Jobs’s exile from Apple.

But that actually led me to an interesting thought this morning. Leave aside the legal differences between copyright violations and patent disputes, and the two cases more or less boil down to the same fundamental situation: Apple brings to market a revolutionary next step in personal computers; competitors then use those same ideas in competing products. Microsoft and Windows then; Google and Android now.

I can see that what some people — people who are far more sympathetic to the idea of Apple attacking Android via the courts than I am — are thinking is more or less that Apple got screwed the last time when a competitor was able to shamelessly use the ideas that Apple first created, and so Apple should do whatever it can to keep that from happening again.

Apple’s argument in the Microsoft case was that Windows was a copy of the Mac’s copyrighted “look and feel”: mouse pointer, menu bar with pull-down menus, overlapping rectangular windows with a title bar at the top containing buttons for zooming and closing, scrollbars, icons representing applications and documents, click-and-drag text selection, drag-and-drop, a trash can, undo, a “desktop”, cross-application copy-and-paste — all these aspects from the Mac were also in Windows.

But what if Apple had patented these things in 1984, and had successfully protected these patents from being used by other U.S. companies? (Or at least the features and designs which weren’t derived from earlier work at Xerox.) It’s not just Microsoft that would’ve been blocked from creating Windows as we know it. A company called NeXT would have been blocked from creating NeXTStep. Every single Mac feature I described above was part of the NeXT UI as well.

Good ideas are meant to spread.