Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal

In 2003, after I unveiled a prototype Linux desktop called Project Looking Glass*, Steve called my office to let me know the graphical effects were “stepping all over Apple’s IP.” (IP = Intellectual Property = patents, trademarks and copyrights.) If we moved forward to commercialize it, “I’ll just sue you.”

My response was simple. “Steve, I was just watching your last presentation, and Keynote looks identical to Concurrence – do you own that IP?” Concurrence was a presentation product built by Lighthouse Design, a company I’d help to found and which Sun acquired in 1996. Lighthouse built applications for NeXTSTEP, the Unix based operating system whose core would become the foundation for all Mac products after Apple acquired NeXT in 1996. Steve had used Concurrence for years, and as Apple built their own presentation tool, it was obvious where they’d found inspiration. “And last I checked, MacOS is now built on Unix. I think Sun has a few OS patents, too.” Steve was silent.

And that was the last I heard on the topic. Although we ended up abandoning Looking Glass, Steve’s threat didn’t figure into our decision (the last thing enterprises wanted was a new desktop – in hindsight, exactly the wrong audience to poll (we should’ve been asking developers, not CIO’s)).

As in life, bluster and threat are commonplace in business – especially the technology business. So that interaction was good preparation for a later meeting with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. They’d flown in over a weekend to meet with Scott McNealy, Sun’s then CEO – who asked me and Greg Papadopoulos (Sun’s CTO) to accompany him. As we sat down in our Menlo Park conference room, Bill skipped the small talk, and went straight to the point, “Microsoft owns the office productivity market, and our patents read all over OpenOffice.” OpenOffice is a free office productivity suite found on tens of millions of desktops worldwide. It’s a tremendous brand ambassador for its owner – it also limits the appeal of Microsoft Office to businesses and those forced to pirate it. Bill was delivering a slightly more sophisticated variant of the threat Steve had made, but he had a different solution in mind. “We’re happy to get you under license.” That was code for “We’ll go away if you pay us a royalty for every download” – the digital version of a protection racket. Continue reading.

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