The Tablet They Won’t Let You Take

Big companies sue each other all the time, but it usually has only a negligible effect on consumers. So when I first heard about the patent suit between Apple and Samsung, my initial reaction was “who cares?” Unfortunately, there is now reason to care, because the latest ruling in that suit is about to remove one of the iPad’s most direct competitors from the market.

On June 26, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh granted a preliminary injunction to stop sales of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 in the United States. Koh wrote, “While Samsung will certainly suffer lost sales … the hardship to Apple of having to directly compete with Samsung’s infringing products outweighs Samsung’s harm.” But Koh focused on harm to the wrong party.

Admittedly, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 looks and feels a lot like an iPad—they’re the same size, have the same black bezel and rounded corners, and even have similar charging cables. Apple founder Steve Jobs also famously railed against Android, the Tab’s operating system, for copying features of Apple’s iOS. But this is the same Steve Jobs who saw the Xerox Alto in 1979 and blatantly copied its interface to create the Macintosh. If Xerox had stopped sales of the Mac with a preliminary injunction then, the computer landscape today would likely look very different. The ugly truth is that while patent infringement is bad for companies, it is often good for consumers.

In another recent case, federal judge Richard Posner got this issue right when he rejected a similar requested injunction by Apple against the sale of Motorola smartphones, saying the injunction would harm consumers. Unlike Posner, Koh rated potential harm to Apple as more important than harm to consumers, which makes no sense. There is no chance that Apple could be driven out of business without the injunction. And if a jury eventually did find infringement, it could order Samsung to compensate Apple without interfering with the competition between two existing products in what is supposedly a free market.

That said, if you want a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 you’d better buy one soon, before they’re no longer available.