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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

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RE: My Patent
By robinthakur on 8/6/2012 8:04:59 AM , Rating: 2
I think that at the root of this, you need to look at the way Samsung and all the phone companies were completely left behind by the iPhone in 2007. From my recollection, nothing came close to the iPhone in terms of usability or look and feel until the galaxy s which looked surprisingly like an iPhone, Apple would say too close for comfort, and in the intervening time, all handset manufacturers lost out to the iPhone significantly. Galaxy s looked like an iPhone it terms of its exterior and also in terms of the way the operating system was laid out. Obviously, in terms of usability, it was nowhere near as smooth or stable, but I could well believe that some people who were not as well read about phones would have purchased one in error thinking it was a kind of iPhone. From then on, Samsung have deliberately aped the design of the iPhone and the packaging.

The same was true with the iPad. Before it came out, you will recollect that everybody thought it would be a massive flop and described it as a big iPod touch. Now after it launched and was a huge success, Samsung entered the market with the tab and then the full sized 10" one. I really don't see it as a stretch to say that the tablet market, let alone those products would not exist without Apple.

I am not loyal to any one firm and have at times used an Android phone along with Apple's devices, but I really don't think you should be defending Samsung of all the firms. Samsung are a cut throat organisational behemoth in a great many industries and are utterly ruthless. Many of their business practices are unsavoury and would be illegal if they did the same thing outside Korea. Their aim of beating the iPhone at its own game did not consider things like intellectual property because firms from the far east do not operate on the same assumptions to do with ownership of IP as we do in the west.

Samsung copied Apple because it realised that Apple trades on the look and feel as well as intangibles like brand appeal and packaging, and since nobody in the phone space had ever sued somebody else for IP violation so they thought they were safe to copy. This was likely born out of frustration that it's products were being overlooked, but this certainly doesn't make it right. I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking back around the time of the Omnia and later the Galaxy S "How on earth are they getting away with this?!?".

This issue is not so bad now with the Galaxy 3 IMO as it does look substantially different to the iPhone (some would say better) but the point on the earlier devices still stands, and you could argue that Samsung's current popularity was built on their earlier success. If Apple has an issue with the OS, then it should just sue Google, frankly but then Apple has nicked parts of the google OS such as notification centre, so they don't really have a leg to stand on.

RE: My Patent
By retrospooty on 8/6/2012 8:16:27 AM , Rating: 3
Like I said... Companies copy what works. This is called competition and is the base for business on planet Earth and has been since the dawn of civilization.

Apply the same thing to cars. Should we all be stuck with only Ford's, because everyone copied the car and manufacturing process they built hte model T with. NO, that isnt how anything has ever worked on this planet. Someone came out with power windows and everyone copied. Someone came out with ABS and everyone copied. Someone came out with the auto transmission and everyone copied (etc etc.)

I would argue that Apple copying Palm putting a mobile OS and app ecosystem on a phone with internet access was FAR more of a blatant copy than simply adding a multitouch UI to that phone with internet access, a mobile OS and app ecosystem. Think about that.

RE: My Patent
By myleftnutishuge on 8/6/2012 11:57:18 AM , Rating: 2
And his point about Apple being way ahead of anything else with the iPhone in 2007...that's true. And that's why Apple made tens of billions of dollars between then and now. But eventually, they need to keep innovating and stay ahead of the curve. I would argue that the iPhone and iOS hasn't improved that much since 2007 while various Android devices (such as the GS3) have closed the gap and even moved ahead in some significant ways.

The only point I disagree with is that all companies copy. Only good companies copy. Great companies steal. Duh.

RE: My Patent
By retrospooty on 8/6/2012 4:56:03 PM , Rating: 2
" Only good companies copy. Great companies steal. "

That's right, and they are "shameless" about it ;)

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

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