Oh, how the times of changed.
Today, we have patents on "one click" shopping (Amazon), somewhat shifty or ill-defined business models/practices (Priceline, EBay, people suing EBay), obvious applications of existing technology such as translation for instant messaging(Microsoft), etc.
If you copy any of the silly things that are patented today, you will find yourself in hot water really fast. There is no "progress by imitation" anymore. Witness the spate of "pre-emptive patents" that are going through the patent office right now. And if the US adopts the EU's potential rules on software patents, you will see every little thing patented, copyrighted, and otherwise legally protected. All to get a piece of the pie. Of course, unless you are a big player or have a big patent gun, you get the crust and the lawyers get the custard.
Back when Borland invented "right click", times were different. Or at least the Silicon Valley attitude was different, more along the lines of what you are talking about. Borland was not a company that believed in patenting user interface. As we know, Lotus, an East Coast company, was. It took a long involved legal process, but finally it was shown that "command sequences" were not protected under existing law.
Today, if "right click" were still in the process of invention, pretty much any company would rush to get a patent on it. That is simply how the culture of commercial software has changed in the past 10 years (or so).
I say "commercial software" because things are much different in the open source / free software world. The culture in the open source world is similar to how commercial software was 10 years ago. You can imitate, borrow, copy, etc., as long as you attribute properly and give proper respect.
So back to Apple.
Apple is going about copyrighting and patenting the entire "user experience" of the Mac. It is part of their defense against someone copying their work. You can see all of Apple's About boxes have the word "experience" in them with appropriate trademark and copyright symbols. Probably patent numbers are coming next.
Of course, Apple is also going and copying interesting applications, including interface design, from third party Mac developers. And then Apple goes about and copyrights/protects them as part of the Apple "experience".
Inescapably, there is a measure of hypocrisy here. Apple did not even acknowledge that they took some other company's ideas. Or give the companies some token of appreciation. Unfortunately, it comes across as simply another arrogant act from a company that has a big rep for being arrogant.
Just as Microsoft's dominant position and penchant for copying ideas from other good products in the Windows world has had a chilling effect on Windows software, so has Apple's. Why would anyone want to compete with the gorilla?
The unfortunate effect of having a gorilla in your market is that the basic tools that we use everyday do profit from a wide base of evolution. You get only what the gorilla likes -- i.e. what the gorilla things will be good to keep on being the gorilla.
Has there been any significant evolution in the Windows word processor market lately? Spreadsheet market? Browser market? Well, there is no word processor market (ask Corel), no spreadsheet market (ask Borland/Corel), or broswer market (ask Netscape). Oops. There are no real markets for those things any more.
The same lack of evolution that characterizes the Windows platform will soon characterize the Mac platform as well.
Overall, mean angry gorillas that eat all the mashed potatoes induce people to find somewhere else to eat. Or at least find something else to eat. There is a reason open source is so popular and why open source folks fear Red Hat or another big Linux vendor turning into a gorilla. It's no fun trying to eat dinner with a gorilla at the table.