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Dear Tim Cook: Apple is not the world's tech inventor

At a recent earnings call, Molly Wood was shocked to hear Apple's CEO accuse the rest of the tech industry of not inventing its "own stuff." Innovation isn't invention -- and even invention is usually inspiration.

Steve Jobs is famous for borrowing a phrase that may or may not have originated with Pablo Picasso: "Good artists copy, great artists steal." He said in "Triumph of the Nerds" that Apple "has always been shameless about stealing great ideas."

Yet in recent years, Jobs was outraged over Android's similarities to iOS. He branded HTC thieves and said he was "willing to go to thermonuclear war" against Google over what he called "grand theft Android." Now, CEO Tim Cook seems to have picked up Jobs' outraged-victim torch, saying in Apple's earnings call this week that the rest of the tech industry is drafting off Apple's innovations and failing to "invent their own stuff." Apple, he said, cannot "become the developer for the world."

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Developer for the world!? I guess I shouldn't be surprised that hubris is alive and well at Apple, it being as ingrained a value as sans serif fonts and white lucite. But at a time when The Patent Wars are spiraling out of control, we really are looking at the kind of thermonuclear war envisioned in "War Games"--the kind where everybody loses.

Cook's wording horrified me -- he's inflaming an already red-hot litigation climate, and I'm shocked at the the sheer gall of suggesting that Apple and Apple alone "invented" every bit of the tech that dominates our lives. No, this is not the part where I talk about all the ideas Apple "stole." The point is not to blame others for stealing ideas. The point is that idea-stealing is itself an increasingly ridiculous concept.

We've all heard the apocryphal story about Jobs brazenly lifting the idea for the mouse, the graphical user interface, bit-mapping, and more from Xerox after a visit to Xerox PARC. In fact, that's not the truth. Jobs was inspired by things he saw at Xerox PARC and went on to improve on some of those ideas and license others. Then he came to market before his competitors could see the opportunities they had before them. It's business.

Jobs and Apple have often been accused of stealing ideas from Microsoft's Windows operating system and vice versa. In both cases, inspiration unquestionably occurred, even if implementation differed -- but the borrowing is obvious. Why wouldn't it be? It's business.

Image: BlackBerry Messenger: the inspiration for iMessage?
BlackBerry Messenger: the inspiration for iMessage? BlackBerry

When Apple detailed the new features in the then-forthcoming iOS 5, the mobile OS was obviously playing catch-up with features inspired by (if not actually lifted from) other mobile platforms: pull-down notifications (Android), iMessage (BlackBerry Messenger), and on-screen notifications (Windows Mobile and others). Again, the implementation differed, but the inspiration was easily traced. Do what the competition is doing: it's just business.

Meanwhile, the jailbreak community is like the farm team for Apple development ideas. Borrowed. Inspired by. Improved upon. The world is Apple's muse. The world is everyone's muse. Just like the Xerox PARC story is full of gray areas, the world of ideas and invention is almost never as cleanly black and white as any Apple aesthetic.

And Jobs knew this. That's exactly the ethos behind the "great artists" quote -- that inspiration comes from everywhere and is remade in the artist's vision. And business is business, and business is about making products better as those products evolve, often in tandem and almost never in a vacuum.

Yet there stands Cook, and Jobs before him, bristling with outrage over Android, full of fury and loss-aversion over the alleged rip-off of multi-touch and the iPhone interface. And yet both cheerfully ignore the fact that Apple's patented multi-touch technology was mostly acquired in 2005, in the form of a company called FingerWorks -- not invented at all.

A Fingerworks patent filing for "Finger Identification Fusion." US Patent and Trade Office

Yes, Apple's acquisition of FingerWorks was brilliant, and it was smart to continue compiling multi-touch patents (and the fault of our patent system for continuing to grant them, perhaps).

But Apple was not the first company to invent or even think of touch-screen and multi-touch technology -- or even to invent or think of making attractive gadgets. They just own all the patents. That's quite a significant difference, and the arrogance of accusing the rest of the tech community of being broadly unable to invent or innovate is staggering.

"Invention" is an impossible thing to determine in the tech world--innovation and ideas are pandemic by nature, and inspiration is and always has been a difficult concept to pin down. (I mean, even Jonathan Ives said Jobs stole his ideas, for crying out loud.)

Apple has smartly used patents to its advantage since the days when Jobs using a patent threat to force Bill Gates to invest in the then-foundering company. It's used the leniency of our patent system to amass a constant and steady stream of patents related to virtually everything it creates. But this inventor's martyr complex is both unbecoming and inaccurate. Bad enough we're back in the Cold War era when it comes to patents: just call it what it is. Business.