By Dominic Basulto
11:24 AM ET, 08/29/2012
South Korean rapper PSY, born Jae-Sang Park, poses for a photo in New York on Aug 22. The music video for “Gangnam Style,” released last month, so far has garnered tens of millions of views on YouTube. (John Carucci - AP)
The two biggest stories out of South Korea these days are the billion-dollar ruling against Samsung in the Apple patent case and the phenomenal viral hit of "Gangnam Style".
Both would seem to highlight two vastly different approaches to innovation. On one hand, you have a little-known Korean pop singer breaking into the U.S. mainstream with a wildly inventive video that has gone viral worldwide and attracted the attention of music’s biggest acts. On the other hand, you have a large, entrenched tech player hurriedly playing catch-up in the tablet and mobile wars and that recently got caught copying another company’s designs.
But things are rarely as they seem.
In fact, Gangnam Style looks an awful lot like Samsung Style when one considers the extent to which the technology industry increasingly resembles the entertainment industry. The tech business has become a hits-driven business, dependent on a few blockbusters. And, just like the entertainment industry, tech’s biggest names now spend a fortune on dutifully protecting these “hits” against potential creative infringements.
From the perspective of Apple, Samsung shamelessly trying to rip off the iPhone or iPad is the equivalent to a Kim Dot Com making available for free a movie a Hollywood studio had spent millions to promote and distribute. But it’s not just hardware. For a company like Apple, these “hits” can either be physical hardware like the iPhone or iPad, or they can be something much more difficult to evaluate, such as an operating system or even a physical movement to manipulate the technology.
And that’s where things get dicey. Upon a closer read of the Apple-Samsung court ruling, some of the patents that Apple were protecting were so commonplace and so basic to the way the mobile industry works that it’s a wonder if any tech companies will be able to challenge Apple anytime within the next few years. One patent that Apple managed to protect was the "pinch-and-zoom" movement — a movement so basic to our conception of modern touch-screen technology that even babies intuitively get it. Another patent was for the rounded, rectangular shape of the iPhone.
Surely Samsung overstepped the boundary between emulation and out-and-out copying, but one can easily see how the jealous protection of tech patents can be carried to an extreme. Some insiders have even joked that the next generation of mobile devices will need to be radically different in shape (triangles, anyone?) in order to avoid potential legal action by Apple in the future.
Emboldened by Apple’s epic legal win against Samsung, Apple’s rivals in the technology industry will surely also adopt all the tactics we’ve seen from Hollywood, the ultimate hits-driven business. Tech companies will take fewer chances, construct ever more elaborate defenses around proprietary operating systems, ruthlessly quash copycats as they appear in the marketplace, and if all else fails, they will take them to court and tie them up with countless legal challenges and battles. They will then lobby Washington for changes to their industry and exceptions, and perhaps even new legislation. And, in the most extreme case — they will attempt to have Uncle Sam bar the company from even competing in the country ever again.
What this ignores, however, is that, as Kirby Ferguson has outlined, “Everything Is A Remix” these days. Even the wildly inventive "Gangnam Style" — after much deconstruction and parsing by The Atlantic — begins to look less like a one-off viral video hit and more like just another traditional product of the K-pop entertainment world, filled with cameo appearances by celebrities, clever references to pop culture and formulaic video elements intended to appeal to mass consumer audiences. And, in turn, "Gangnam Style" is getting ready to be made into a remix of its own, as Western acts get into the game of tapping into the next big hit of the cultural zeitgeist. Apparently, even Justin Bieber is reported to have shown interest.
While there’s no excusing a rip-off, it’s too easy to view the Samsung-Apple case as a morality play about Apple, the uber-innovator who took on a brazen foreign competitor and won. What this ignores is that the technology industry has, as a result, forever changed but that endless lawsuit after endless lawsuit will not move the industry forward — something the entertainment industry has already found out the hard way.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautifuland Most Wonderful."