Samsung and Apple: High-tech's Punch and Judy

(MoneyWatch) The legal blows Apple (AAPL) and Samsung are exchanging have turned the duo into a high-tech "Punch and Judy" show. No sooner did Samsung come within a hair of getting the iPhone 4 banned, only to have the Obama administration overturn the International Trade Commission's ruling in a highly unusual action, than Apple is trying to have Samsung products banned.

Whack! Samsung hits Apple. Smack! Apple strikes back. It's a tit-for-tat, ego-driven affair that years ago moved beyond business necessity into what today amounts to meaningless -- and destructive -- litigation. In the long run, that destruction is likely to rebound on its perpetrators.

The legal wrangling is over patents, the legal protection companies get for their products and other intellectual property. But the concept as originally created centuries ago was to protect inventors who came up with that better mousetrap. These days, patents, particularly in the consumer electronics industry, much more often cover some small software feature or literally microscopic tweak to a piece of silicon. For instance, the number of patents a new cell phone must clear has soared into the tens of thousands.

Once, manufacturers of mobile devices were in an era of intellectual property detente bolstered by an unspoken promise of mutual destruction. And now? Treaties are out the window. There is no reasoning because each side -- incomprehensibly wealthy with enough money to buy entire countries -- is determined to be top dog.

Neither side can ultimately become the only choice of the smartphone buying set, so this entire exercise is futile, a waste of corporate resources and a distraction from real business. The speed with which the industry sees upsets should be a goad to innovation as a way of staying ahead. But both Apple and Samsung have begun to be criticized for losing their way.

Genuine business problems, such as despair among the workers who actually make the products, are ignored, other than the occasional public pronouncement and purgative hunt for the culprits. No industry can indefinitely float on a sea of misery, no matter how profitable.

If corporate inclinations were not enough, the Obama administration has vastly aggravated the situation by bailing out Apple at the last minute from having the iPhone 4 barred entry by the U.S. International Trade Commission. What will happen now if Apple succeeds in blocking Samsung through the courts, which doesn't give the president a ready way to intervene? Screams about hypocrisy from South Korea, an important ally and an electronics superpower? An eventual trade war?

Unfortunately, there is no end to this in sight. Neither Apple nor Samsung seems willing to compromise. Maybe it will take a full ban on many gadgets, along with consumers and businesses rising up, to give a collective dope slap to both.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.