Ruling upholding Apple’s design patents may be a setback, impacting consumer choice and welfare
The turf battle between two mobile phone companies, who between them sell more than half the smartphones sold worldwide, are locked in more than 50 courtroom battles in 10 countries, captures the degree to which the control over patents have become synonymous with technological innovation. The latest verdict from a U.S. court in favour of Apple, upholding its claim that Samsung has violated six of its seven patents, has made even non-geeks take notice of the all-out war between the two companies.
Apple is suing Samsung with infringement of four of its design patents and three utility patents, whereas Samsung is counter suing Apple with five of its patents pertaining to wireless communication (3G and 4G LTE patents).
Certain technologies start off as innovation of one company, and evolve into the de-facto industry standard for others to follow — this has been historically true. For instance, in the automation industry companies did not sue each other for ‘replicating’ cars having a chassis and four circular wheels.
Apple’s claim that the design of Samsung’s smartphone and tablets with thin rectangular cuboid bodies, and the rounded square icons as a violation of its design of the iPhone and iPad would seem unreasonable when seen on a similar scale. Nonetheless, with the current verdict and the patent system, these design patents are being upheld and might be a setback, impacting the range of choice for consumers.
Design patents are applicable to the ornamental design of functional equipment. Apple holds the physical design patent for its iPhone and iPad. Four design patents, the ornamental designs of iPad, iPhone in white and iPhone in black, and the round square icons on the screen of these gadgets, are the infringements Apple is accusing Samsung of, and as a proxy other Android-based smartphone makers. In the latest ruling from the court in San Jose, California, the jury has agreed on the violation of all but the patent for iPad design, yielding a sweeping victory for Apple with $1.05 billion in damages and a prospective ban on a range of Samsung products. The striking similarity in the design of Samsung gadgets, both physical design and interface at many places, with that of Apple products is now the biggest problem for Samsung. The injunction of banning certain Samsung smartphones and tablets in other countries might get stronger with the U.S. court verdict, affirming the stance taken by the German court in August 2011, banning Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 in German markets.
The interface for touch-based devices available today invariably has some basic functionalities such as multi-touch recognition and tapping screen for zooming and scrolling. Apple is again staking claim and has successfully got a ruling against Samsung in the U.S. court for patent infringement as it had the utility patent for these algorithms.
Apple has three utility, or application, patent violations in the lawsuits against Samsung. Patents on interaction features with touch-based devices such as enlarging documents by tapping the screen, ‘bounce-back’ feature when scrolling beyond the edge of a page and the technique of distinguishing between single and multi-touch were used to show that Samsung had copied from Apple.
These features Apple is suing Samsung for have become an industry standard so to speak. With the trend of rulings in favour of Apple, it will render a double impact: One is, of course, it will mandate research and innovation leading to better technologies. Secondly, it will also make it a fierce battle of Intellectual Property and patents between companies as a means of getting an edge over competitors.
Innovation, at times, needs to be measured in more ways than design patents. Making products affordable by building upon an existing trend is also one of the means of sustained innovation. Apple could be using the arsenal of its patents to tie down the galloping Samsung smartphone business.
Claims of design and utility patent infringement of fundamental ideas, although legally validated hasn’t easily sunk in among the consumers. In India, Samsung smartphones outnumber any other vendor including Apple, and it has naturally left a distaste for this entire saga among consumers.
In one of the utility patent infringement, Apple is suing Samsung for the ‘Slide to unlock’ feature. Graphics are being circulated on social networking sites, that Apple has then violated Maruti Suzuki’s Omni, which also has a ‘slide to unlock’ feature to open the side door. Not to equalise domains, but some ideas are very fundamental and to patent these basic ideas is a regression in innovation.
With the current legal framework and the Intellectual Property Rights regime, one can only hope to see more innovation and better competition and not innovation to kill competition.