With two huge multi-national corporations behaving like school children, the US government is currently acting like a headmaster who's also the parent of one of the students.
To wit – the US International Trade Commission (ITC) upheld Apple's patent infringement case against Samsung, limiting the import of certain Samsung devices, merely a week after the Obama White House officially overturned a ban on the Apple iPhone 3G, 3GS, and 4, as well as the 3G-friendly iPad and iPad 2 tablets, for patent infringements against Samsung.
It was the first time in 26 years that a US President had overruled the ITC, and was a major blow to one of Samsung's standards essential patents. The New York Times Editorial Board for one, approved of the action, arguing "a routine dispute over standards-essential patents should not be the basis of an import ban."
On Friday, the ITC ruled that Samsung violated Apple's patent that covers swiping your finger across the display of a device. Because Apple invented swiping, right?
The affected Samsung models potentially involve the Galaxy S2 smartphone and Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet, as well as future models. Despite the ruling Samsung said its products would continue to be available in America, and implied it has already adopted some changes to avoid infringing on Apple's patents.
Samsung had argued a negative ruling could cause dire consequences for consumers and competition in America's mobile market, including widespread shortages of mobile phones, particularly among smaller US carriers, "that would take many months to rectify."
Now the only way the ITC ban on Samsung devices can be overturned is if the Obama administration vetoes it – it has 60 days to decide.
Apple has filed another complaint with US courts (that won't go to trial until 2014), seeking to ban newer Samsung Galaxy smartphones – you know, the ones eating Apple's lunch.
This whole patent war is one that Apple, and Steve Jobs in particular, started, upending a long-standing "gentleman's agreement" between US mobile phone companies; all had competing patents but were generally happy to license them to each other.
Jobs changed all that when he decided to enforce patents aggressively, rather than happily letting things slide and pocketing licensing fees. While such (anti)competitive behaviour was integral to Jobs' personality, current Apple CEO Tim Cook is said to have a much more pragmatic outlook. He has inherited a silly and petulant war of attrition, wherein Samsung has responded to Apple's petulance by matching it, with both companies now wielding patents as weapons that drain competitors' resources, rather than as a means to protect and foster innovation.
You have to hand it to the ITC; it has at least been consistent. It's the White House that now needs to show that it too is consistent, and be seen to be acting fairly in an international trade dispute, and throw out the Samsung ban.
Maybe then the two companies will have a real discussion about how they can foster, rather than inhibit innovation.
(Don't hold your breath).
Image Credit: Anna Fox