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Why It's Time to Stop Picking On Apple


The company is a lawsuit magnet.

Can one company steal literally every one of another company's innovations?

Nokia (NOK) seems to think so.

The telecom company is expanding its legal dispute with Apple (AAPL), a dispute that began over patented technology supposedly co-opted for use in the iPhone.

Nokia now claims that almost every single product Jobs & Co. manufactures violates the Finnish phone maker's patents -- from user interfaces to cameras to antennas to batteries.

While this lawsuit plays out in the courts, Apple was let off the hook last week in another suit when a federal appeals judge dismissed a long-running suit by three plaintiffs -- who sought class-action status at one point -- that attempted to deem iPods as defective because the volume controls allow music to be played at levels exceeding 115 decibels.

Prolonged exposure to excessively loud noise can lead to hearing loss. Ask any construction worker who operates jackhammers. Or a subway trackworker. Or Pete Townshend from the Who. There's a reason why people wear earplugs. There's also a reason why the volume on an iPod can be adjusted from barely audible all the way up to painful.

In his decision, Judge David Thompson wrote:

"The plaintiffs admit that the iPod has an 'ordinary purpose of listening to music,' and nothing they allege suggests iPods are unsafe for that use or defective. [Their] statements suggest only that users have the option of using an iPod in a risky manner, not that the product lacks any minimum level of quality."

Users have the option of using an iPod in a risky manner.

Well, yes -- they do.

So do users of steak knives, fast cars, alcohol, scissors, superglue, skis, golf clubs, and sailboats.

However, people who use knives to cut their food into manageable pieces know that the blade is sharp and perhaps playing Mumblety-peg in between bites could prove risky.

Drive too fast and you could cause an accident. Jab a pair of scissors into your eye and chances are you'll be rendered a cyclops.

And, if you listen to an iPod at unhealthy volumes for years on end, you may sustain some hearing loss -- just as the warning label on the package explains:

"Permanent hearing loss may occur if earphones or headphones are used at high volume."

But the folks bringing the lawsuit against Apple didn't actually sustain any such hearing loss. The suit was predicated on the fact that their hearing could be damaged if they listened to loud music for extended periods of time, and thus, Apple was foisting a defective product on an unsuspecting public.

I couldn't agree more. Just like Hamilton Beach was pushing defective blenders on the masses for all that time because someone could potentially remove the lid while the machine was set to "puree," stick their hand inside, and hurt their fingers.

In Europe, however, the citizenry has been protected from themselves by their helpful elected officials.

Last September, the EU began requiring all makers of portable music players sold in member countries -- the Apple iPod, the Microsoft (MSFT) Zune, Sony's (SNE) MP3 Walkman -- to install volume limiters that won't let the devices' output exceed 80 decibels. (See, Apple's iPods Go Quiet in Europe.)

Perhaps similar regulations will be enacted here in the United States, agreed to by companies nervous about spurious litigation.

Then, it would just be a matter of time before someone decided to sue because their constitutional right to loud music had been impinged upon.
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