It’s not exactly “news” that Apple allegedly stole Corephotonics’ multi-lens smartphone camera technologies to use in iPhones. While the Israeli company filed a new lawsuit alleging as much yesterday (via PatentlyApple), it actually builds on earlier lawsuits filed against Apple in 2017 and 2018, all with the same central claim: Dual-camera iPhones are infringing on technologies Corephotonics patented to let multiple thin, horizontally mounted lenses replicate the optics of one thick, vertically stacked zoom lens. In other words, Corephotonics is the key reason there isn’t a giant tube sticking out of your iPhone’s camera.
As a former intellectual property lawyer, I’m never surprised by patent lawsuits, especially ones claiming that a big company blatantly stole and commercialized a small company’s novel idea. Even so, formal training and years of experience have taught me not to automatically take David’s side just because he’s making a convincing case against Goliath; merely alleging something, even across multiple lawsuits, doesn’t mean that it’s true.
But on a human level, I can’t help but feel sickened when I read Corephotonics’ allegations against Apple. They all have the ring of truth, and seemingly provide further ground-level evidence of how Apple employs its nauseating “high-risk,” billion-dollar legal strategy against little people who try to reasonably approach it with ideas or concerns. Whether you’re a tiny camera company or an individual person making a MacBook warranty claim, “go ahead, sue us” isn’t a good response.
Corephotonics says that it opened in 2012, filed patents for an innovative dual-camera design, and quickly approached Apple with its technologies. After roughly two years of evaluating Corephotonics’ ideas — including a sneaky attempt to access a contract manufacturer’s production samples — Apple began licensing negotiations in 2014, but took a hard line on pricing. Allegedly, Apple’s negotiator suggested that it could just infringe the patents and force Corephotonics into extended, expensive litigation before possibly having to pay something; the negotiations broke down after that. Then in August 2016, Apple invited the company to submit a new licensing proposal, just before announcing the iPhone 7 Plus with a dual-camera system in September.
If this was the first time Apple had been accused of predatory patent infringement, it might be worth giving it the benefit of the doubt. But Corephotonics isn’t the only small company this has happened to; quite a few small developers have shared the same experience of being invited to show off a new technology, only to be told something like “it’s too small to pay for, so go ahead and sue us.”
While Apple doesn’t particularly advertise “stealing ideas from small companies” as its “innovation” strategy, it has openly admitted to shamelessly copying good ideas from large companies — most famously, Xerox — in the past, and been accused of similar behaviors by Qualcomm. Over the past decade, it has occasionally used euphemistic phrases such as “standing on the shoulders” of established innovators to acknowledge when it’s copying and building upon someone else’s idea.
From a big-picture perspective, any consumer electronics product is the combination of myriad innovations developed by untold and sometimes uncredited inventors. No one should be (or likely is) operating under the assumption that one person invented everything in the latest iPhone. Even the smallest new feature was almost certainly the product of a group of people working together to transform an idea into reality.
As an “innovator,” Apple’s problem is that it doesn’t respect innovations brought to it by others — even if they’re good enough to become the tentpole features of its new products. Instead, the company appears all too willing to invite potential partners into friendly meetings just before devouring their businesses whole, with no compensation.
A cynical reading of Apple’s interactions with Corephotonics would suggest that it decided to use Corephotonics’ innovations with or without a license, and had the company submit licensing proposals mostly to establish the damages it might have to pay if it was sued. If so, it probably wouldn’t have been surprised when Corephotonics sued in 2017, expanded the suit in 2018, or went even further yesterday. And given the damages it might have to pay — some small fraction of its multi-billion-dollar annual revenues — it likely won’t flinch if and when a court finds in Corephotonics’ favor.
Cynicism may be called for here. If supply chain rumors are correct, the biggest changes between Apple’s 2019 iPhones and their predecessors are likely to be expanded versions of the multi-lens cameras Corephotonics pitched to Apple in 2012, just as those cameras have helped justify sales of two prior generations of iPhones since 2017. Assuming the company’s allegations are accurate, I certainly hope that the legal system helps it reap its just rewards for moving Apple’s devices forward, to say nothing of improving smartphone camera technology as a whole.