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Apple using patents to punish their customers?

September 22, 2010

Apple’s MagSafe Power Adapter adapter is really a wonderful invention which saves laptops and power cords by safely disconnecting them when one trips over or pulls the power cord. It’s therefore no surprise that the design of the power adapter is heavily patented and protected by Apple. Whatever you think about patents, it at least makes sense that Apple would want to prevent competitors from imitating their design.

What makes less sense is yesterday’s lawsuit against Sanho/HyperMac, which makes an external battery for Apple devices that plugs into the MagSafe adapter. First, Sanho provides a useful service to Apple customers, since current Apple laptops have non-removable batteries. If their customers want to take along an extra power source, Sanho’s HyperMac battery is the only simple way to do it. Second, Sanho does not actually copy Apple’s patented connector. Rather, they reuse Apple’s own connectors in their own products. According to the traditional first-sale/exhaustion doctrine, once you sell a product, you have no control over how it is used, regardless of what patents you hold on it. Unfortunately, some companies have recently used copyright law to circumvent this doctrine. If Sanho is indeed merely reusing original Apple parts, this case bears watching to see whether the first sale doctrine can still protect consumers and resellers. In either case, I fail to see what Apple has to gain from banning a product which is so useful to their customers.

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