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Judge Koh hands Apple another gift

Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd.'s (KSC:005930) capability to defend itself from Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) design intellectual property was further weakened on Thursday when Judge Lucy Koh of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (San Jose/San Francisco) ruled that Samsung could not use designs from science fiction works to prove invalidity (via prior art) of Apple's design patents.

I. Sci-Fi Props Not Valid for Design Patent Invalidation

Apple is claiming that a series of design patents on the iPad and iPhone -- U.S. Design Patent No. D618,677D593,087, and D504,889 -- grant it exclusive rights to produce rectangular (with-rounded edges) touchscreen devices with a "minimalist" number of buttons.  Note, the patents themselves have little text, so much of the validity debate revolves around the validity/invalidity of Apple's interpretation of ubiquitous design rights, which is not explicitly stated in the patents.

Samsung has questioned Apple's rights to "patent shapes".  But it's unclear whether Samsung's legal team will be capable of invalidating Apple's patents.  

The iPad looks very similar to designs seen in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and the fan-favorite science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both fictional visual depiction predated Apple's 2004 patent by over a decade.

2001: A Space Odyssey poster2001 tablets
2001: A Space Odyssey "tablets" [Image Source: Stanley Kubrick/MGM]

Geordi tabletStar Trek
Star Trek tablets [Image Source: Gene Roddenberry/Paramount]

Judge Koh said pre-existing fictional works were not valid pieces of evidence to use in proving invalidity of design patents.  

Sources reporting on the decision did not mention why the judge considered this invalid.  One clear implication is that if the decision is upheld it essentially gives commercials firms open season to make real-life devices based on fictional products.  For example, if a company made the iconic "golden snitch" of the Harry Potter universe, it could repatent the existing visual depiction under a new design patent and J.K. Rowling could not invalidate that patent.

II. Alternate Routes to Escaping Apple's Design Claims

Judge Koh did allow Samsung to use at least two real-world prototype or commercial design that could be integral in proving prior art.

The first allowed display is a Hewlett-Packard Comp. (HPQ) tablet -- the Compaq TC1000 -- which debuted in 2002, two years before the iPad patent.  That tablet had a minimalist design, like the iPad's.

HP TC1000
The Compaq TC-1000 (2002) [Image Source:]

Also allowed was photographs of Roger Fidler tablet prototype which he produced for media company Knight-Ridder.

Fidler with tablets
The iPad (2010, left) versus the Knight-Ridder prototype (1994, right)
[Image Source: Grant Hindsley/The Washington Post]

Without its phone-space prior art (which Judge Koh banned for being "too late") and without the sci-fi prior art, Samsung faces a tougher struggle as it must rely more heavily on the handful of allowed possible prior art examples.

There's some hope that Apple may win on validity and evidence exclusion, but still lose on design infringement.  To win on design infringement, the jury must accept Apple's argument that the images in its design patent allow it to patent a certain shape of electronic device.

In theory, Samsung's lawyers could acknowledge the validity of Apple's design patent, be unable to show the full history of their device development, but still argue their device did not infringe based on other factors.  

For example, it could argue that it was invalid to patent shapes.  If it can convince the jury, all it has to do to avoid design infringement is to show that there's substantial visual differences between the iPad and Galaxy Tab and between the iPhone and Galaxy Nexus (or other phones in question).  Again, whether the design differences are sufficient to escape infringement is a subjective argument, but when viewed clearly (e.g. at a distance where you can distinguish features) Apple and Samsung's products are easily distinguished.

And it's important to remember that design is just one part of the two company's infringement claims.

III. Editorial: The Big Picture and Why If Either Side Wins, You Lose

Samsung has patented standards technologies, and is legally obligated to license Apple those patents at a "fair" rate, but is trying to shirk those responsibilities and license them at an inflated rate.  

And Apple is also suing Samsung on technology patents that cover a number of trivial graphical features.  

There's great danger in terms of future precedent if either side wins on any of its major claims.  If Apple's design claims are upheld, it offers a slippery slope by which companies can patent certain shapes in certain sectors and gain an artificial government-enforced monopoly.  If Apple's technology claims are upheld, there could be a rash of patenting and key sectors of the economy like websites (which share common algorithms and visual features) and software (which again are programmatically similar and visually similar) could be destroyed, with only a few patent-rich survivors left standing.

And if Samsung's technology claims were validated to the extent it wants them to be, the concept of affordable licensing of standards patents would be lost.  This, too, is an undesirable outcome.

Video gamer
Depending on who wins, tech standards could be badly damaged or the internet/software (e.g. games) market could be destroyed, based on the fact that both companies' objective seemingly rely on abuse of the intellectual property system. [Image Source: BuyPoe]

The case is very significant as Apple and Samsung are two of the biggest companies in the world, so this in a sense is a very precedent-setting case.

In other words if either side achieves total victory, consumers essentially lose.  Conversely, the only way consumers win is if both sides lose, at least to some extent.

Thus this is an important case to watch very carefully as the two sides battle in court, as the outcome could effect your choice of future products, perhaps well beyond the smartphone space, even.

Source: All Things D

Comments     Threshold

This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By name99 on 8/3/2012 3:20:08 PM , Rating: -1
grant it exclusive rights to produce rectangular (with-rounded edges) touchscreen devices with a "minimalist" number of buttons.

You specifically state that the issue is "minimalist number of buttons".
Given this, how can you claim that something like Star Trek Communicator (which seems to have a whole bunch of buttons along the bottom) is relevant?

You are missing the more important point, moreover, WRT the 2001 stuff. APple has never made a big deal about theirs being a TOUCH device, what they consider innovative is their use of MULTI-TOUCH. Is the 2001 device multi-touch? The Compaq device certainly is not, and I imagine the Knight-Ridder device is also not.

You may not like the law but these details matter. No-one is claiming the idea of video on a flat-screen is innovative, likewise the idea of a flat computer. It is the GESTALT of characteristics in iOS devices that Apple is claiming is characteristic. You do yourself and your readers a disservice when you pretend this is not the case and mock single specific items of the case, whether it's rounded rectangles, or the use of touch (as opposed to multi-touch), or the tablet form factor.

RE: ???
By SAnderson on 8/3/2012 3:39:51 PM , Rating: 1
If its touch screen there's no need for a full keyboard. Look at phone evolution/functionality and there's a quick transition of buttons and touch abilities. For the most part there's one or the other, not both.

RE: ???
By cwolf78 on 8/3/2012 3:49:47 PM , Rating: 1
what they consider innovative is their use of MULTI-TOUCH

Are you honestly trying to tell us that Apple actually MAKES the multi-touch hardware in their screens? They don't even make screens period. That they could even get a patent on that is beyond me. If the court upholds that patent, not only do consumers lose, but the manufacturer of said screens can only sell to Apple.

RE: ???
By Reclaimer77 on 8/3/2012 4:13:57 PM , Rating: 2
Apple bought the company who owned the patents, and invented, multi-touch. So these idiots actually think that grants Apple the right to be the sole provider of such devices.

RE: ???
By testerguy on 8/3/12, Rating: -1
RE: ???
By Reclaimer77 on 8/3/2012 6:18:55 PM , Rating: 2

“a method for providing human input to a computer which allows a user to interact with a display connected to the computer”

Yup not broad or generic at all. Another solid patent by Apple, not.

RE: ???
By Theoz on 8/3/2012 5:00:11 PM , Rating: 2
And we have reached a new low of patent ignorance.

Patents are fully transferable such that the current owner has a right to exclude all others. Ownership of the patents would thus grant apple the right to be the sole provider of such devices, assuming your facts are correct.

RE: ???
By Reclaimer77 on 8/3/12, Rating: 0
RE: ???
By testerguy on 8/3/12, Rating: -1
RE: ???
By Fujikoma on 8/4/2012 8:10:37 AM , Rating: 2
Multi-touch is an extension of a touch screen, an expected evolution of the touch screen. A company wrote software to keep track of more than one point of contact on a screen... they can copyright the particular code and as long as someone writes something different that does the same thing, then Apple doesn't have a leg to stand on. You do realize how many spreadsheet, word processing, picture viewing and movie viewing programs are out there that all do the same thing, yet are still different. By Apple's reasoning, only one in each area would be legal and all the others would be violating some patent.

RE: ???
By bupkus on 8/3/2012 3:55:34 PM , Rating: 1
So let Apple patent the "GESTALT of characteristics".

"Well, we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system." -- Nintendo of America Vice President Perrin Kaplan

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