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Nashville Scene The Right to Copy

In the computer business, as in life, ideas are easily swiped

By James Hanback Jr.

JULY 19, 1999:  When I was a lad of 9, I became the author of a homespun comic strip. My cartoon consisted of a Smurf-like world of insects, led by a crotchety ant-like creature called Old Man Bug. Inspired by Disney's The Fox and the Hound, I dubbed his beetle-shaped wife Big Mama.

That was only the beginning. Before school started in the fall, I had a cast of more than 100 characters for "Bugland." Then when school came around, rather than paying attention in class, I often worked on the next big Bugland adventure. Eventually, my work drew the attention of my classmates and my teacher. Some of it ended up in the school newspaper.

Suddenly, I developed a rival. It was the beginning of the end of Bugland, you might say. One day, a folded sheet of notebook paper landed on my desk with the words "Top Secret" scrawled across the front. Inside, letters across the top of the page proclaimed that I held in my hands a contract. It was signed by my fourth-grade competitor and stated that "I [name] promise that I [name] will not copy any of the characters or comic strips written by [my rival's name] and that I [name] will not spy on his work."

It was, perhaps, my first brush with copyright law. I signed the paper and responded in kind with a duplicate contract for my rival. I don't think he ever replied.

After that, I lost interest in Bugland. "Good artists copy. Great artists steal," Picasso reportedly once said. How could I be a great cartoonist if I couldn't take inspiration from other people's work?

This fourth-grade tale might seem trivial, but similar stories have played out countless times in the world of business. Consider how Apple Computer's Steve Jobs felt when, in the mid-1980s, rival Bill Gates of Microsoft suddenly, and quite dramatically, developed his Windows software for the PC--drawing inspiration from the new graphical user interface of Apple's Macintosh. The irony here is that Jobs himself derived the idea for a graphical user interface from work being done at Xerox.

Apple had a unique thing going, and going well. At that time in its history, Apple reportedly had a 50-percent share of the personal computer marketplace. And then along came Gates.

I have to wonder at that point if Jobs didn't lose some of his enthusiasm for the project, much the way I lost my enthusiasm for Bugland. Whatever the case, it wasn't long afterward that Jobs left Apple--largely because of clashes with then-CEO John Sculley--and the computer company's share of the marketplace began to dwindle. Sculley and Apple ended up suing Microsoft over Windows' similarity to the Macintosh. They lost.

Now along come the '90s, and Jobs returns to Apple with a new take on the old "computer for the rest of us" idea. That vision becomes the iMac, which has been nothing short of a miracle rebound for Apple Computer. Now, however, it may seem to Jobs and company as though history is repeating itself.

At a PC Expo trade show in New York recently, computer company Future Power introduced an all-in-one PC called the E-Power, according to reports from ABCNEWS.com. It runs Windows software but otherwise looks nearly identical to the iMac, with a translucent plastic casing and a choice of five different colors. It even has the iMac's curves.

In response, Apple Computer has reportedly filed a suit against Future Power that seeks to halt the company from distributing computers that copy the iMac's design.

Early this year, I predicted that consumers would start seeing the influence of the iMac in the PC world, with sleek new designs and brighter colors. Sure enough, other PC manufacturers have begun to find new and innovative designs for their products, though few of them even remotely resemble the iMac.

People may agree or disagree with Apple's decision to pursue this matter. Personally, I disagree; after all, for the past 20 years, no company ever thought of bringing suit against another for building a beige, rectangular personal computer. Regardless, let's hope that this dispute doesn't lead to new heartbreak for Jobs. His return is the best thing that could have happened to Apple in recent years.

Perhaps Apple won't even follow through with the lawsuit. The E-Power is extremely new, and it's doubtful that Future Power has the marketing muscle behind it to make the model competitive with Apple and Microsoft. And even if the E-Power does get its foot in consumers' doors, it doesn't mean the end of the iMac's market share.

Besides, competition and rivalry can be a good thing--they're what push people to excel. Here's hoping Apple understands as much.

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