Apple and Samsung, the two titans of the mobile industry, are girding for yet another showdown over patents in a California court this week. Apple contends that Samsung copied the look and feel of its iPhone and iPad. Samsung says that Apple’s patents are overly vague and that Apple is also guilty of infringing on Samsung’s own mobile patents. Billions of dollars in damages are at stake - not to mention the future of competition and innovation in mobile technology.
The Battle Revolves Around Functionality and Design
On Monday, Apple launched its U.S. court battle to stop Samsung from allegedly copying the design and utility of both iPhone and iPad hardware and software in its Samsung Galaxy devices. Apple claims that 25 different Samsung mobile products copied various Apple patents. That includes how the devices look (design patents) and how the user interacts with them (utility patents).
If Apple had its way, it would throw its full arsenal of patents at Samsung. Same goes for Samsung, which has been in the mobile business longer than Apple and has thousands of patents of its own. But the judge in the case, Lucy Koh, requested that both companies limit the number of actual patents in court because if both companies started arguing over every tiny detail of what they think the other copied or infringed, the case would become so overwhelming to jurors that a verdict would be impossible.
Design Patents and Trade Dress
Apple has boiled down its design patents to four particular instances. One is related to the iPad, one related to the look of Apple’s iOS software and two related to the iPhone.
The two iPhone design patents include placement of the iPhone’s round “home” button, rounded corners, edge-to-edge glass and “uncluttered” front of the iPhone. See the pictures from the registered patents below.
The iOS design patent addresses the grid layout of icons in iOS - along with the bottom dock where staple applications like the phone, browser and messages live. From a design perspective, that is very simple to understand.
The iPad patent, like the two from the iPhone, has to do with the shape and size of the device. A thin bezel and minimal aesthetics of the front and back are the primary aspects.
Basically, Apple claims that Samsung devices look very similar to the iPhone and iPad and it believes it has the registered design patents to prove it. Samsung contends that these patents are extraordinarily vague.
This brings up a new and interesting aspect of the case: the concept of "trade dress." Not something we've seen in Apple's other patent battles, trade dress is a form of intellectual property intended to protect consumers from “packaging or appearance of products that are designed to imitate other products; to prevent from buying one product in the belief that it is another.” Basically, Apple wants to prove that Samsung copied Apple’s designs to trick consumers into thinking they were buying an iPhone or iPad.
The three utility patents should all be familiar to many mobile users. If you have used an iPhone, you know that you can “pull to refresh” a Web page or an app. Apple actually holds a patent on that, which the industry dubbed “rubberbanding” and it claims that Samsung has infringed on it.
Another of the utility patents determines when someone is using one finger to scroll through and app or a website or using two fingers to zoom in on a picture or text. The final utility patent is the “tap to zoom” function, where a user taps the text of an article to make it larger compared to other areas of content on the page.
Samsung must defend itself from Apple's design patents but it does not have any design patents of its own in the case. Samsung’s case revolves around five utility patents. Two of them are associated with how “3G” (or third-generation) cellular technology is implemented in the devices. The other three are about how a user transmits email, toggles between photo and image modes, and selects “MP3” (music) modes on the device.
Precedents and Indicators
As mentioned above, Samsung is one of the first companies to come under a full attack from Apple over how its products are designed, not just how they work. Apple seems to believe that Samsung was obsessed with the iPhone and iPad and went out of its way to copy them. In some ways this may be true. Samsung’s 10.1-inch Galaxy Tab was announced early in 2011, before the iPad 2. When Apple unveiled the second generation of its tablet, Samsung delayed the release of the Tab 10.1 and re-announced it later in the year to be slimmer and sleeker. In that case, it clearly seems like Samsung reacted to what Apple had released.
Apple brought a similar case against Samsung over design earlier this year in the United Kingdom. In that case, the judge issued a famous line saying that Samsung did not copy Apple because the Galaxy Tab devices were “not as cool” as the iPad. Apple was ordered to issue notifications on its website and in major U.K. news media saying that Samsung did not copy it. That ruling has since been stayed, but the precedent exists where Apple has lost its arguments over design.
Another possible indicator of how the case might play out is that Judge Koh has ruled in favor of Apple over Samsung in the past. In late June, Koh issued a temporary ban of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus in the U.S. over utility patents.