/ Technology

Samsung vs Apple – the battle of the Titans

A US jury has found Samsung guilty of infringing multiple patents belonging to Apple and has been fined $1bn. But this is only the beginning of a long, tortuous story that could have a very messy ending.

Apple’s case against Samsung was extremely complicated. But in short, Apple accused Samsung of imitating its ’trade dress’, or more simply, the look and feel of its iPhone.

Ultimately, Apple claims that Samsung’s copycatting resulted in a loss of sales for its own iPhone range. The infringement included the design of Samsung’s handsets, but also the interface elements such as its icons and basic phone behaviours.

Apple claims that Samsung willfully copied its designs and apparently, the jury agreed.

Don’t feed the trolls

Ironically, no matter which side you take, the issue is more or less the same. Apple supporters claim the win as a victory for innovation, while Samsung and Android supporters argue it’s the death knell for innovation.

As far as I’m concerned, none of them are right.

In the short term, the verdict will give further validity to the US patent system, widely acknowledged to be flawed. Arguably it gives power to numerous ‘patent trolls‘; companies that exist to protect and license patents they often have no intention of using.

Large companies have the power to fight the trolls and the money to buy them off. But everyone else is at their mercy, which can only serve to stifle small and innovative companies.

But the idea that mobile phone companies are at Apple’s mercy is a stretch. Samsung itself has already moved away from iPhone-like designs and, judging by the success of the Samsung Galaxy SIII, is no worse off for it. Microsoft has also taken an innovative direction with its Windows Phone OS, which is critically acclaimed, although sadly sales figures don’t reflect this.

Imitation or innovation?

However, I think the long term impact of the ruling will be huge. Samsung will probably appeal the verdict and some experts suggest the case will go all the way to the US Supreme Court – the highest court in the US.

And I hope it does because, whether you agree with Samsung or Apple, the argument is far larger than either company. It goes right to the heart of what can be reasonably protected and what can’t. In this case, I think Samsung appear to have verged closer to imitation than inspiration than most mobile manufacturers would dare.

But there’s a serious difference between the superficial similarities between Samsung phones and Apple’s iPhone, and the protection of what have become standard forms of touchscreen interaction. Patents for ‘pinch to zoom’ and other similar software patents are a nuisance, and the longer this saga goes on, the more likely those with the power will sit up and take notice.

Do you think that Samsung veered too close to Apple’s designs? And could this win for Apple set a dangerous precedent?

Comments
Profile photo of wavechange
Member

This is but one of many battles. They keep lawyers in business, and the consumer foots the bill. The consumer does, however, benefit from the advance in technology, irrespective of which company is the winner.

Member

You seem to have missed the point, the public will not benefit from innovation – the smallest components of software design are being patented – it’s like patenting the turning of a screw: “Large companies have the power to fight the trolls and the money to buy them off. But everyone else is at their mercy, which can only serve to stifle small and innovative companies.”

Profile photo of lankee
Member

You know, I’m not at all sure I agree with that. You appear to have misunderstood the implications. Consumers benefit from choice, not monopolies.
This verdict has the potential to stifle innovation and technological advance. Or at the very least redefine it to mean “whatever Apple does” (in this particular field). That sounds a little alarmist, admittedly.

The verdict is not the biggest problem, though. It’s the system that makes this possible.

The US patent system (as it applies to software or business methods) is broken and has been for many years. The very idea that you can patent ’rounded icons in a grid’ or a ‘rectangle with rounded corners’ is severely flawed (yes, I realise those are simplistic readings of the patents in question). Did you realise there is also a patent on the ‘double-click’?

Patents are supposed to be non-obvious, novel and useful. “Laying icons out in a grid” is not an invention. It’s a design element. Copyright the icon designs and fonts etc. by all means. Patents are way too general and prohibitive for this.

The craziest element (to my mind) of the patent system is the lack of a requirement to actually prove you can do or create something that you wish to patent (or the glaring ignorance of existing prior art).

It is close to impossible to build a new smartphone (or indeed write a piece of computer software) that will not at some level infringe on one of these pointless patents. Ignorance of the existence of a patent covering your invention is not a defence under law. Hence the existence of the aforementioned “patent trolls” who essentially register (or indeed buy) patents for technologies and methods that do not currently exist and wait for someone to invent them so they can sue.

Right now, this verdict essentially gives Apple a monopoly in the USA on very common design elements for smartphones, which can only place barriers in the way of innovation. There are probably any number of other patents on incidental parts of the generic smartphone (or the OS that runs on them). The most common way to have a defence against these sort of legal attacks is by amassing as many similar patents yourself. It’s not dissimilar in concept to the cold war premise of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Just to illustrate the daft patent point, a method for swinging from side-to-side on a swing (not technology-related, but still definitely not ‘novel’)
http://www.google.co.uk/patents/US6368227
There are also existing patent applications for human teleportation and time machines.

There is almost constant lobbying to make similar patents possible in the EU and the UK (they currently officially aren’t). This really needs to be stopped. Not entirely sure how that can be done, though.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

lankee

I agree that the patent system is a bit mad, and many have made this point before. You are absolutely right about the lack of need to prove something. I know of examples of patents that contain claims that are plausible but not proven. When I was involved with writing my first patents with the company funding my research (nothing to do with electronic technology) I was advised to make claims broader than I wanted to, which very much goes against the need for precise reporting of information normally expected of scientists.

You are probably right that in the case of phones etc. the patent wrangling has got out of hand and is stifling competition. On the other hand, it could lead to radical new ideas, in the same way that a touch screen would be a new idea if all current phones used keypads.

rarrar makes an interesting observation that the motor industry seems to involve a lot of copying without constant patent disputes.

Profile photo of ca@hadrian-way.co.uk
Member

lankee,

I agree with everything you say and if the rot gets into Europe, we’ll be as badly off as the Yanks. Some years ago at work, I spent many months researching patents granted on a US software product in the test industry because it was very similar to our product which we had developed some years earlier. We weren’t considering sueing them, we were concerned that we would be unable to sell our proiduct! In the end we thought that we might have to defend our design (approx $5m costs) if we ever sold it in the states, even though we invented it.

But back to this particular case. It was so wrong on many levels. First the design patents were too broad and second the software patents were trivial and had prior art. The most important aspect though is the way the US justice system (I call it the US injustice system) allowed the trial to be conducted. Much of Samsung’s prior art was disallowed, along with some witness statements, because ‘Samsung filed too late’. Then came the jury selection. By the time both sides had rejected anyone who had any engineering knowledge, software background, connections to either company (quite hard when the court house is 5 miles from Cupertino) the jury was comprised of of people who had no idea what a patent, prior art or anything else relevant was. They were then given hundreds of pages of jury instructions, which few (if any) could understand. They were also given twelve pages of questions which they had to answer. Needless to say they ignored the jury instructions and basically went therough ticking the boxes for the questions with little understanding of what they did. There is evidence of this because they were sent back by the judge because their answers contradicted with each other, plus the jury foreman has blabbed to the press.

This verdict will be appealed of course and Samsung will get some if not all of the findings overturned. But at what cost? Millions of dollars to Samsung and Apple, loads of uncertainty for other mobile manufacturers and overall higher costs and less innovation. So the good old consumer pays again.

I’m afraid that the older I get, the more contemptuous I become about the US and its doings.

Profile photo of rarrar
Member

As far as patents go I find it hard to see what is innovative and not obvious in many of the features which the press claim are patented.

Similarly with design copyright it seems very petty but lucrative for the lawyers. I am sure the motor industry doesnt go to quite these lengths to protect many of the features we see on all new cars.

Member
mmap says:
29 August 2012

“..appeal against..”

Member
Keith says:
29 August 2012

Well Apple need to protect their market as they have no place to go. They have no “Cool factor” left in their brand and their sales are slowing down. Just another Cisco, get too high from the ground and you can’t see your customers any more.

Member
MIKE says:
29 August 2012

The only thing I think is innovative about the Iphone is the pinch to zoom and it seems reasonable for Apple to be allowed to protect this feature if they want to.

Generally, having a regular lay jury on a technical trial like this seems daft.

Member
Keith says:
29 August 2012

Agreed

Profile photo of DCole
Member

As an engineer I would have to disagree. ‘Pinch to zoom’ is just common sense.

Profile photo of Patrick Steen
Member

Yes, common sense patents do seem a little much – but if they were first to come up with the idea, shouldn’t they be allowed to keep it?

My HTC phone doesn’t do pinch to zoom though… it does pinch to zoom-out and ‘stretch’ to zoom-in. Perhaps that’s how they got around it?

Profile photo of Chef Richard
Member

Innovation? Competition? How about it if all the automobile, vacuum cleaner, toaster, fridgeand jet aircraft manufacturers follow Apple’s example. The U.S.Supreme Court might just revive the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and ask what the late Mr. Job’s heritors are doing to restrain competition at the expense of the public. The laws are still on the books.

Profile photo of Chef Richard
Member

Inovation? Competition? What if all the worlds car, coffee makers, jet aircraft, toaster and fridge manufactuerers could sue to stiffle competition and inovation of design and function? A decision in
California could remove all potential investment by blocking access to the world’s largest market.
We had best hope the U.S. Supreme Court might revive the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and purpose.