Opinion

Apple’s Kowtow To Chinese Oppression

REUTERS/Aly Song

James Edwards Intellectual Property Consultant

It isn’t pretty when a corporate oligarch bends to communist China, but that’s what tech giant Apple has done in a gut-checking way.

This latest concession by one of the world’s richest companies puts into sharper contrast Apple’s bullying back home and refusing to honor its contractual commitments.  The firm is charged with infringing patents and refusing to pay the licensing fees owed the patent owners.

The U.S. International Trade Commission has accepted a request by Qualcomm, a top American mobile and wireless technology leader, to investigate Apple’s infringement of six of Qualcomm’s patents.  If Qualcomm prevails, Apple faces an exclusion order, keeping infringing iPhones and iPads out of the country.

In the one instance, this corporation acceded to Chinese demands to remove more than 60 virtual private network apps from the App Store.  VPNs enable individuals more freely to communicate with others, circumventing the government’s vast censorship bulwark and escaping Chinese Big Brother’s reprisals.

Not exactly a profile in Miltonian courage on Apple’s part.  In Areopagitica, John Milton advocated a free marketplace of ideas.  “Let [truth] and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” Milton wrote.

The world knows that this Communist government represses freedom, and China vigorously applies brutal force against anyone who dares to think for himself.  VPNs have facilitated Chinese exchange of views that stand at odds with the official doctrine.

This conciliatory action speaks far louder than Apple’s words.  Commitment to fundamental principles is proven by actions that back up words.  You know, like the female runner on the famous commercial, who heaves a sledgehammer at the Big Brother on the screen who has the masses brainwashed and marching in lockstep.

Apple had a choice of whether to set a shining example, standing for the unalienable individual right of free speech in a free marketplace of ideas its VPNs provided in a repressive regime.  The company blinked.

Contrast this complicity and appeasement with the other instance.  Apple’s hubris may be catching up with it.

The firm’s alleged patent infringement would mean Apple has used, made and sold Qualcomm’s inventions in Apple’s imported products.  The ITC’s job includes protecting American companies’ patent rights where foreign-made imports are concerned.  The United States is Apple’s largest market, thus the import ban would be significant and hurt its business.

The ITC’s announcement indicates there’s sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation into whether Apple is bringing into the United States products that contain patent-infringing components.

The subject of this patent-infringement investigation is the latest in a longer dispute between two great American companies.  It also fits into a larger context of patents, invention and doing the right thing.

There’s probably politics behind a last-ditch complaint the Federal Trade Commission filed in the waning hours of the Obama administration.  Conservatives decried this misdeed and called for the FTC to change course.

That was soon followed by Apple suing Qualcomm.  Apple has refused to pay its licensing fees.  Samsung and Intel filed court briefs against Qualcomm.  Meanwhile, Samsung’s dirty work is being done by South Korea’s FTC, which fined Qualcomm on bogus grounds, using unfair proceedings such as denying the right of cross-examination and withholding evidence.  Samsung’s heir and “de-facto chief” was just sentenced to five years in prison for his role in a government corruption scandal.  All of this amounts to assaults on Qualcomm’s property rights.

Apple founder Steve Jobs said, “We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

He later said, when Apple sued mobile phone company HTC for infringing 20 of Apple’s patents, “We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it.  We’ve decided to do something about it.  We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours.”

That’s a natural reaction when you see someone stealing something that belongs to you or using it without your permission or compensation.  Patents secure an inventor’s private property right to the fruit of his or her intellect.  Patent owners gain exclusivity over use of the inventions.

Qualcomm is a research-and-development company whose engineers turn out world-class, state-of-the-art, standard-setting technology that make our smartphones work and work well.  Apple, though it patents some inventions, licenses many times more of others’ inventions.  Each iPhone contains thousands of patented components, and Apple owes a licensing fee to use each of them in its products.

Thus, the company Steve Jobs built finds itself sacrificing principle for short-term gain.  That’s the case with its pulling down neutral apps that independent-minded Chinese used, and with its apparent trampling of licensors’ intellectual property rights.

Apple, which portrays an image of swagger and rugged individualism, has placed itself on a tightrope without a safety net in these two different ways.


Perspectives expressed in op-eds are not those of The Daily Caller.