Closing the Homework Gap and Fostering Tomorrow's Tech Visionaries

The Supreme Court announced this week that it will review a design patent case that dates back years between two giant tech companies, Apple and Samsung. The policy issue in question in this case isn't just an inconsequential corporate patent licensing squabble, but rather it hits at the future of innovation policy in the modern age and its ultimate outcome will have a tremendous lasting impact on innovators, small businesses and consumers alike.

It's no secret that smartphones are a frequent source of distraction for teenagers. One doesn't have to look far to find a young person with his nose buried in Instagram or exchanging Snapchat messages. However, a recent The Wall Street Journal article depicts a more constructive development in smartphone use. According to the piece, high school students actually prefer to complete their assignments on smartphones, rather than using a PC or laptop. Why? Young people are typically more familiar with their smartphones' interface and appreciate the devices' portability. And with a widening array of applications like Flubaroo, which offers customizable assignments and quizzing with grading in real time, smartphones can help ease the workload for overextended teachers.

This trend might be due in part to the relative affordability of smartphones. One educator estimated that 90% of his students had a smartphone, including many from lower-income households. Today's generation of smartphone-wielding students are not only becoming more engaged with their education, but they are also on the front lines of an important technological shift in our society and economy.

America's education system is in the midst of an exciting and dynamic revolution, aided in part by broadening access to technology. As smartphones become more pervasive in schools, they can help foster success among students and even encourage greater diversity in the tech sector, where it is sorely lacking. Last year, the Department of Education reported that graduation rates for black and Hispanic students increased by nearly four percentage points from 2011 to 2013; yet, these two groups, as well as minorities with limited English proficiency, still experience graduation rates below the national average.

But the tremendous pace of advancement and disparity leveling progress that is reshaping our schools and communities through technology could slow if innovators are hesitant to create connected products and devices in the future. And this is why the Supreme Court did the right thing in accepting the Apple-Samsung design patent case.

Since 2012, Apple and Samsung have been engaged in litigation over patents. Apple has pursued claims for damages and even an injunctions over Samsung, based on infringement claims on patents that the Patent and Trademark Office have deemed invalid, stating that they were mistakenly granted in the first place.

In another high-profile case that the Supreme Court will now hear arguments on in the fall, Apple seeks damages for design patents covering common shapes like a rounded rectangle. Even though these patents only cover relatively minuscule portions of the device's design, a lower court awarded Apple damages equal to total profits earned from the infringing device based on a misguided interpretation of an antiquated design patent statute. Modern devices used in classrooms today rely on hundreds-of-thousands of patents as will devices of the future. Total profit awards will do nothing to connect the unconnected or under-connected in America. Rather, awarding total profits for design patents - unlike the way that damages are awarded for all other types of intellectual property - will only deter innovation and raise costs for consumers.

Just as I believe Internet access is a great equalizer in our society, so too is access to smartphones. Technology leaders should find ways to knock down the barriers that restrict access to technology; not erect new ones putting litigation over innovation. In reviewing the Apple-Samsung case, the Supreme Court took an important step toward ensuring the digital future for millions of Americans isn't slowed by old laws that have no place in the 21st century world. A better path forward is to reign in absurd damage awards to help ensure young people have access to the learning tools of tomorrow.

Jeremy White is a former special assistant for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and national diversity advocate. He is the head of DiverseTech.