Paul Barrett San Francisco
Early this month, a British judge named Colin Birss ruled that Samsung’s tablet computers were unlikely to be confused with Apple’s iPad because they were “not as cool”. In the often bizarre world of intellectual property law, this was bad news for Apple.
The two companies, along with several other rivals, are battling it out in what can appear at times like a globe-spanning courtroom free-for-all over who invented what in smartphones and tablets.
In fact, there is a shape to the struggle for domination in the booming $312 billion (R2.5 trillion) mobile device market: Apple has gone after HTC and other competitors that it sees as proxies for another foe – Android, the operating system Google gives away to manufacturers.
Google’s approach threatens Apple’s pitch to consumers that its exclusive, “walled garden” offerings are better.
While everyone in the tech business wants to be seen as hip, Judge Birss’s determination, in the UK front of the internet protocol world war, meant the Korean company’s products were distinctive (uncool) enough not to infringe Apple’s registered designs. Score that round for Samsung.
This is, however, a marathon bout, or perhaps cage match.
Having fought over the past two years on four continents, lawyers for Apple and Samsung were for the first time to take their fracas before a US jury in a trial which was scheduled to start yesterday in a federal court in San Jose, California.
Once US Judge Lucy Koh, herself a former Silicon Valley litigator, has empanelled the jurors, the laypeople drawn from Apple’s backyard will have to sort through each company’s reams of claims that its rival infringed patents covering designs and technology.
Billions of dollars in potential damages are at stake with this battle.
Between them, Samsung and Apple control almost half of the smartphone market. Apple alone has more than two-thirds of the tablet business.
As complicated as this may seem, Apple will try to convince jurors of one essential idea: Samsung is a copycat.
“Samsung is on trial because it made a deliberate decision to copy Apple’s iPhone and iPad,” the company declared in the opening line of its key pretrial filing.
“Try as it might,” the filing added, “Samsung cannot deflect attention from its own copying by the patents it has asserted against Apple.”
Look, Samsung answered in its filing, a lot of competing products appear similar. “In this lawsuit,” the Korean company said, “Apple seeks to stifle legitimate competition and limit consumer choice to maintain its exorbitant profits.
“Android phones manufactured by Samsung and other companies – all of which Apple has also serially sued in numerous forums – offer consumers a more flexible, open operating system with greater product choices at a variety of price points as an alternative to Apple’s single, expensive, and closed-system devices.”
The trial may well boil down to whether a little copying is such a bad thing.
Samsung’s filings indicate that it will acknowledge that it closely studies its rival’s products. That some Samsung phones and tablets imitate the look and features of Apple’s versions is pretty much beyond question.
So what? Apple’s innovations are built on earlier products made by numerous rivals, the Korean company will contend, and the late Steve Jobs’s real genius was for marketing those innovations, not coming up with them in the first place.
Hanging over the conflict is the fact that the two firms rely heavily on each other – Samsung being one of Apple’s main suppliers of flash memory chips, display screens, and other components. – Bloomberg