Final ruling is still pending; Judge believes that Samsung infringes, but Apple's patents are questionable

For the world's largest phonemaker and world's largest Android phonemaker, Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (SEO 005930) some good news finally came in its lawsuit war [1][2][3][4] [5][6][7] with Apple, Inc. (AAPL). After seeing its flagship Galaxy Tab 10.1 banned from sale in Germany (on the grounds of design patent infringements) and in Australia (on the grounds of technology patent infringements) it has scored an early victory in arguably its most important court battle in the U.S.

I. U.S. Federal Judge to Apple: No Injunction for You!

On Thursday, Judge Lucy H. Koh, a justice in the Northern District Californian federal court, denied Apple's request to ban sales of Samsung's product for now, on one of its four patent claims.

Specifically Judge Koh commented that an injunction was not warranted based on Apple's sole technology patent in the case, U.S. Patent No. 7,469,381.  She called her decision on the patent, which covers document scrolling "tentative" and said she would issue a final ruling "fairly promptly".  She comments, "It took a long time to make that distinction"

Reuters' court reporter writes that the judge commented that she felt Samsung did infringe on Apple's patents, though the report does not clarify whether she indicated which patents she felt were infringed -- the three design patents, or the sole technology patent.  On the other hand, the report says the judge complained that Apple is having problems establishing the validity of its patents.

II. Apple's List Scrolling Patent and Samsung's Violation

The technology patent by Apple claims ownership to temporarily displaying a non-active region to a document, such as a webpage or list, when scrolling, zooming, or rotating.  Our testing indicates that in Android 2.3 Gingerbread -- the OS on the Galaxy S smartphone named in the suit -- that such a capability is indeed present in some places.

In the Gallery app when you scroll downward part of a black empty row is shown when you reach the end of the list of pictures and keeps scrolling.  When you release, the list bounced back to the last row.  

Android Gingerbread Gallery App
Samsung/Google's "slavish" infringement [Gallery App]
This scrolling feature is not found, based on our testing, on webpages in the built in browser.  However, a similar feature -- also covered by Apple's patent -- is present.  When you zoom out, you will see gray around your webpage when you reach the edges of the document.  Releasing the zoom pinch will bounce the document back to full screen, as mentioned in the Apple patent.

Browser App Gingerbread
Samsung/Google's "slavish" infringement [Browser App]

This patent seems relatively obvious in that it basically covers an animation and if GUI animations were broadly patentable video games as we know them couldn't exist today, software would be litigated into oblivion, and the web would be a ghost town.  That said Samsung will need to follow the path of obviousness and invalidate Apple's patent in court, as it clearly does use the animation technique covered in this patent.  

If Samsung cannot do that for some reason, it should be relatively trivial to remove this feature as the animation does not significantly improve the Android experience in our opinion.

(As a technical note it is operating system maker Google, Inc. (GOOG) who created the infringing design, but Samsung uses Google's OS so is being sued by proxy.)

III. Apple's Design Patents

Now that Judge Koh has tentatively denied Apple's motion for a preliminary injunction regarding the utility patent, the question becomes what she will do when it comes to the design patents -- U.S. Design Patent No. D618,677D593,087, and D504,889.

The first two patents cover the design of the iPhone 4 and iPhone (original), respectively.

The validity of these patents could be question mainly from the perspective of Apple's broad application of them.

Below we have diagrammed the differences between the iPhone designs and Samsung's Galaxy S, which Apple claims "slavishly" copied the iPhone.  Specifically note that the folowing features are different:
  1. Button count and placement
  2. Connectors
  3. Side profile of phone (note the lip on Samsung's design)
  4. Size of screen and general phone size.
  5. Logo/name placement on body
Smart Phone Comparison

Similar differences can be found between the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the iPad, an early version of which is covered in the final patent.  We've detail these differences between the patent, the actual iPad, and the Galaxy Tab 10. below, which include:
  1. Only Galaxy Tab 10.1 has a camera (compared to the original iPad).
  2. The thickness in the design patent doesn't match the thickness of the iPad or Galaxy Tab (please measure this in an imaging software, in pixels, if you don't believe us).
  3. Bezel sizes don't match between any of the three designs.
  4. Connectors and buttons on the side are different.
  5. Screen sizes and aspect ratios are different.
  6. Only the iPad has a home button.
  7. All tablets are clearly and unambiguously branded.
  8. The back color doesn't match.
Tablet comparison

Really when you look carefully from an artistic perspective (presumably the criteria for merit on a design patent) in both the tablet and smartphone cases the biggest visual similarities are simply the general form factor (thin rectangles) and the color scheme.  In this sense the devices are somewhat similar in looks.

There was a bit of court room drama that's gathered much attention in which Judge Koh held up the Tab and iPad and asked Samsung's lawyer Kathleen Sullivan to identify her company's product.  Ms. Sullivan reportedly could not tell them apart at that distance (it was unclear if Judge Koh was covering the iPad's home screen button).

At that point Judge Koh asked, "Can any of Samsung's lawyers tell me which one is Samsung and which one is Apple?"

At that point one of Samsung's other lawyers finally coughed up the correct response.

While the incident was certainly humorous, it's important to not put too much weight in such court room drama, lest it leads one to misleading conclusions.  One need only remember the controversial O.J. Simpson/Johnny Cochrane "if the glove doesn't fit" showmanship to realize that.

While the designs are somewhat similar in a very general sense, it seems a slippery slope to grant Apple broad ownership of such a design for two reasons.  First, it would create ambiguity of exactly how broad Apple's design ownership is.  Second, it would essentially grant a monopoly on the state of the art smart phone and tablet form factor to Apple.  

Given the radical differences in the designs, it would seem if the designs are found to "infringe" that only Apple can make thin rectangular smart phones and tablets.  This kind of ruling could have a catastrophic effect on many emerging electronics markets.  After all, if this kind of standard was applied to the PC industry, Dell, Inc. (DELL) and Hewlett-Packard Comp. (HPQ) could be suing each other and Apple for copying each others' "general form factor".

Clearly this kind of broad design ownership hasn't been granted in other electronics markets, so it seems doubtful that Judge Koh will rule this way.  But stranger things have happened.

IV. Looking Ahead

In the U.S. patent battle, a final ruling on the preliminary injunction request with respect to all patents will soon be issued.  Given the pressure from wireless carriers Verizon Communications, Inc. (VZ) and Deutsche Telekom AG's (ETR:DTE) T-Mobile USA [1][2], and Judge Koh's previous statements, it seems likely that Apple's request will be denied.

The question then will become whether Samsung can successfully invalidate Apple's patents, or at least escape a design infringement ruling (as the utility patent's infring features could easily be removed).  Also pertinent is whether Samsung can succeed in its counter claim, which sues Apple on the grounds of infringing on many of its 3G communications patents.

There's also been recent action in the Netherlands and Australian arenas, we will update you on this shortly.

Source: Reuters

"If they're going to pirate somebody, we want it to be us rather than somebody else." -- Microsoft Business Group President Jeff Raikes

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