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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: TC-OneThousand.com]

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



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

American corporate stupidity
By Scootie on 8/4/2012 1:10:11 PM , Rating: 2
always amazes me. And that judge's counts should be checked for Apple money.




"Google fired a shot heard 'round the world, and now a second American company has answered the call to defend the rights of the Chinese people." -- Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.)














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