Everyone’s always copying Apple. We know this because Apple is forever suing other companies and sometimes even children who dare to infringe on its copyrights. Don’t get me wrong… the company is completely within its rights to protect its intellectual property. But the whole industry spending more time in courts than in research labs is getting beyond a joke.

Apple clearly has the best designers in the tech business, and so it’s ripe for others to take a long look and start selling their own versions of its products. Whether that’s Microsoft with the Mac OS or Samsung with the iPad Apple’s competitors just can’t help themselves copying rather than coming up with something original themselves, it seems.

But is Apple so squeaky clean itself?

In a 1996 TV interview Apple founder Steve Jobs quoted Picasso: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”.

“We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas,” quipped Jobs.

Here’s some of Apple’s own copy & paste jobs.

Xerox: stealing the Mac OS

Whether you call it inspiration, a genuine business transaction or flagrant theft there’s no doubting that Apple wasn’t exactly the first company to dream up an operating system based on a graphical user interface (GUI).

That honour goes to Xerox – you know the guys who made photocopiers.

Jobs had to be persuaded to visit Xerox’s legendary PARC research labs by the  original guy in charge of the Macintosh project, Jeff Raskin. Steve and Jeff didn’t really get on. Steve called Jeff “a shithead who sucks”.

But Steve did go to PARC on the basis of a business deal whereby he let Xerox invest a million dollars in Apple if it “opened the kimono” at PARC. Apple went public the next year, and that $1m was worth nearly $18m.

Xerox Alto graphical user interface screen

Many at PARC were not happy to be giving away their coolest secrets and tried to hide the best bits from Apple, but Steve and his crew knew there was more and so pushed the Xerox top brass to show more and more, including the prototype Xerox Alto computer’s Smalltalk operating environment, three-button mouse and pop-up menus.

“You’re sitting on a goldmine,” Jobs told the guys at Xerox, who probably smiled back grimly.

Eventually Apple saw all it needed to go back to base and start work on its own GUI that went on to power the Macintosh and even spawn its own little copy, Microsoft Windows.

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it," said Apple Fellow Alan Kay. Only he didn’t say it at Apple. He said it to his bosses when he worked at Xerox PARC. Then he moved to Apple.

The irony that Apple borrowed the idea for a GUI from a company later known mostly for copying probably wasn’t lost on Jobs.

“If Xerox had known what it had and had taken advantage of its real opportunities it could have been as big as IBM plus Microsoft plus Xerox combined – and the largest high-technology company in the world.”

It didn’t. Microsoft picked up the idea from Apple, and became the biggest tech company in the world. Apple sued but lost its claim that Microsoft had stolen the idea of Windows from the Mac. After that court case Apple still clung to the idea that Microsoft had ripped it off. Even at the company’s lowest moment Steve Jobs negotiated with Bill Gates on the basis of that claim: “If we kept up our lawsuits, a few years from now we could win a billion-dollar patent suit. You know it, and I know it.”

Samsung: swiping the iPhone

Lawyers the world over are currently raking in the cash as Apple and Samsung squabble over various patents and design ideas. Apple says that its iPhone was first, and that Android mobiles such as the Samsung Galaxy S3 are just blatant copies.

But hold on. Before Apple unveiled the iPhone to a stunned world in 2007 – with Steve Jobs boasting even then that Apple had patented the hell out the touchscreen phone – Samsung had been awarded patents in its native South Korea for its own mobile, called the F700, which looks horribly clunky next to an iPhone but is undeniably similar in shape and looks with a neat home screen grid of touchable icons.

Apple iPhone vs Samsung Galaxy S3

“There is nothing wrong with looking at what your competitors do and being inspired by them,” says Samsung attorney Charles Verhoeven, who then accused Apple of copying Sony for the iPhone’s minimalist design.

Steve Jobs’ fury – "I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong” – at Google’s Android OS “ripping off the iPhone” makes this saga a digital version of Dickens’ Jarndyce vs Jarndyce – “This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means.”

Microsoft: nicking the tablet

A decade before Apple unveiled its “revolutionary” iPad tablet, Microsoft announced a new type of computer: the Microsoft Tablet PC. Some would say that Microsoft, never a regular in the innovation Hall of Fame, had simply swiped the idea from… guess who? Yes, the boffins at Xerox PARC, after it recruited two of its legendary computer innovators, Butler Lampson and Chuck Thacker.

Microsoft tablet PC Bill Gates Super Cool

Of course, seven years before that Apple was merrily proclaiming its Newton tablet to be the future of computing.

And in 1968 some guy came up with an idea to create “A Personal Computer For Children Of All Ages”, calling this idea for a tablet computer the Dynabook. That man was Alan Kay – you know the Xerox guy who wanted to invent the future, and later worked for Apple.

Macintosh. iPhone. iPad. Apple’s three most vital products have all have been involved in lawsuits, and none can be argued to have sprung pure from the hive mind of Apple innovators.

When he quoted Picasso about great artists stealing Steve Jobs meant that Apple took other’s ideas and executed them insanely greatly.

While the lawyers argue over what is idea and what is execution we should remember another of Picasso’s famous lines: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”

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