With the New Year, many people resolve to improve their health. The Apple Watch Series 9 Ultra 2 could be a tool in this goal. Still, it has come under scrutiny as health tech company Masimo claims the watch’s blood oxygen meter copies its technology and constitutes intellectual property infringement. As of writing this, Apple can no longer sell the disputed watch in the US as the courts sort out the issue. While protecting intellectual property (IP) is foundational to the patent system, this case illustrates that the consumer benefits are not always obvious.  

Central to Masimo’s lawsuit against Apple is the wearable meter that uses lights to measure the user’s blood oxygen. Masimo claims that Apple intended to copy their technology as far back as 2013, when a scientist from the company left to join Apple.

In response to the lawsuits over the blood oxygen meter technology, Apple has countersued, claiming that Masimo, being primarily a medical technology company in the past, copied Apple’s design for its smartwatch designed to monitor blood oxygen and other vitals and that the aesthetic design for Apples’ products is crucial to their appeal.

These cases hinge on whether each company violated each other’s IP. However, for consumers watching this unfold, it might not be initially obvious how IP protection benefits them.

Essentially, intellectual property refers to any invention or creation the creator can register to gain ownership of the idea. This system of protection is done to incentivize innovation by rewarding people for successful ideas.

A system to protect intellectual property is crucial as it allows people and companies to invest in innovative technologies, knowing that competitors won’t easily copy their work. A panel at the University of Bradford found that substantial intellectual property rights and vigorous enforcement of said rights correlate with increased innovation.

However, too broad protections can hurt innovation by allowing companies that hold a lot of patents to sue people they consider to violate them rather than putting them to use. This can suppress competition and reduce the options available to consumers. A moderate approach to intellectual property protection has shown the best outcomes when promoting innovation.

 On the surface, having multiple competing options for smartwatch-based blood oxygen technology would benefit consumers. However, a system that protects IP offers more consumer benefits in the long run.  

The dispute between Apple and Masimo illustrates the complexity of implementing intellectual property protections in a way that encourages, rather than stifles, innovation. While this is not always straightforward, courts and policymakers must balance the need to protect people’s creations without stifling innovation.

Trey Price is a technology policy analyst for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information, visit https://www.theamericanconsumer.org/ or follow us on X @ConsumerPal.