The Digital Skeptic: Patents No Longer Polish Apple

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It might just be time for investors to face the intellectual property music: Patents no longer polish Apple's Inc.

Monopolizing ideas -- that is, being granted a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office -- had long been part and parcel of the breathtaking brands of Steve Jobs and Apple ( AAPL). The intellectual terrain these two tried to control is astounding. In 2011, The New York Times listed the patents for one Steven P. Jobs -- all 323 of them. The big ideas, like the iPod and the iMac, were there, but so were the not-so big ideas: the peripherals for said devices, the packaging for said devices and, no fooling, the staircases in the retail stores that led to said devices.

"Depending on who you speak to, Steve Jobs was a prolific innovator, relentless collaborator or shameless limelight stealer," the fabulous Roberto Baldwin wrote for Wired this year.

Amazingly, Jobs is not done with trying to own ideas. In March -- from the grave, mind you -- he patented two more tweaks to the iMac and the iPod Shuffle.

But as marvelous as Mr. Jobs' ideas are -- and as much as they pump up Apple's roughly $500 billion market cap -- in this information-as-trash age, how much are these mere ideas worth?

Probably not much. And the world -- and Apple -- know it.

Patents are little protection
The traditional spin on patents is they are the critical DNA of the digital age.

"They are often viewed as weapons that big companies use to fight each other. But they are the crown jewels of technology companies," Ed Schauweker told me over the phone. He is the spokesman for the Open Invention Network, the Durham, N.C., patent management firm.

But it doesn't take a Big Data algo to calculate the street value of these so-called diamonds. Simply look at Apple's own patent squabbles, particularly its ongoing feud with Korean chip and screen giant Samsung.

Tensions have always been a fact of life between the two. But the real howling began last year when a German court levied an injunction against Samsung over the Apple-factor of the Galaxy Tab. Samsung fired back with an Australian ruling against Apple over the iPhone 4S. Apple won again with a $1.05 billion infringement settlement against Samsung here in America. Then courts in Japan and the U.K. ruled that, no, Samsung actually was not at fault. To get a real feel for the pointlessness of it all, gander at this infographic from online tech news service Mashable.

Let's be real here: As much as onlookers may want to cast this battle as Optimus Prime fighting it out with Megatron for control of the universe, this is nothing more than Tuesday night pickup hoops at the community center -- old guys with no game elbowing each other into a draw.

One need not be Karl Marx reborn to sniff out the backstory behind the shoving. Patents alone don't make iPhones. People do, highly skilled and talented people -- a fact CEO Tim Cook talks openly about when asked by NBC's Brian Williams the critical driver behind where his products were built:

"It's about the skills," he said.

And guess who's one of Apple's go-to sources for skilled labor? You got it, Samsung. For all of the patent mudslinging, Samsung remains a global source for phones, chips and display screens and a critical vendor to Apple.

Now, sure, the company puts on a good show with legal action to keep Samsung's mitts off its patent inventory. But is it really any wonder that the screen and chip maker's phones and tablets are awfully similar to Apple's?

After all, Apple teaches Samsung how to make the things.

And if you listen carefully, Apple understands the future is about having more control over what it makes. In other words, bringing production back to the United States, where the rule of intellectual law actually rules.

"Honestly, it's not so much about price ... In this iPhone, as a matter of fact, the engine in here is made in America ... The glass on this phone is made in Kentucky," Cook told NBC. "We have been working for years on doing more and more in the United States."

Sure, Steve's brilliant patents will always be brilliant -- but as nothing more than exhibits in the Museum of Modern Art. In today's global digital slum, brilliant ideas are as only as good as the brilliant products they create. The future -- and the market cap -- therefore belongs to the Apples of the world that can integrate and protect intellectual property in the products they produce.

Which means, building them as close to home as possible.

If Apple hopes to end its long slide in value, it won't be long before all its products proudly proclaim: "Designed and Built in California."
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.