One of the cardinal rules of this website is that I will never provide any legal advice. Not only is this to keep me from getting sued for malpractice but also because this part of my life is separate from that part of my life. Nevertheless, people have asked and I think it is time to weigh in with my own thoughts.
First a little background
I don’t practice intellectual property law. I don't know anything about it. I have never represented a client concerning an intellectual property issue. I have no more knowledge about this stuff than any of the other Internet carnival barkers out there. If you read anything in this post and used it to make a legal decision in your own life, that would make you a moron. If you’ve got a legal problem, get a lawyer. The one thing I am sure about when an intellectual property issue arises for one of my clients is to run, not walk, to the nearest IP specialist and hand them off.
What I also know is that patent and trademark cases are one of the most efficient ways to kill a company. It is like terminal cancer, heart disease, and a hernia all rolled up into one ball of pain. I tell my clients that litigating in the patent court is the same as building a bonfire of $100 bills. Burn baby burn. Perhaps it's not clear, but I am not a fan of patent and trademark litigation.
What we know, now
It is undisputed that Apple entered a license agreement with Lodsys. Nobody on the outside, however, has seen it. I suspect somewhere in that agreement is a critical paragraph that talks about the extent and scope of the license. It either applies to independent app developers using the Apple produced API or doesn't. That is what a lot of very expensive lawyers are going to spend the next year arguing about and ultimately, barring settlement, a smart person in a black robe will decide.
Before Apple went public on this, one possible outcome was that this matter would just go away. Indeed, the first draft of this post included an extensive discussion of this possibility. I reasoned that if Apple’s own reading of the license agreement was that the license didn't extend to independent app developers, Apple would quietly enter negotiations with Lodsys to amend the agreement, write a check, and be done with it. This would be done quietly because Apple does not want to open the door for every other software license agreement and, frankly, because it is Apple.
That did not happen. To the contrary, Apple very publicly states that it has reviewed the license agreement and believes it applies to the app developers. I suspect Apple attorneys burned the midnight oil during the last week reaching that conclusion so such a definitive statement could be made.
I don't think Apple has the disdain for its developers that some imply. Nor do I believe they will leave developers in the lurch. The stakes are too high for Apple. If independent app developers can get sucked into intellectual-property litigation at the drop of a hat, a lot of them would leave the platform. I certainly would. I'm happy that Apple has stepped in. What started out looking like David versus Goliath now looks like Goliath versus the Imperial Death Star.
Although I've seen none of the underlying documents in this case and don't pretend to understand the patents at issue, I suspect this matter really boils down to a matter of contract. The Lodsys/Apple license is either broad enough to cover these app developers or not. In either case, I suspect Apple is going to do right and all future Apple software licenses just got about five pages longer to make sure this never happens again.
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