The history of Patent and Design disputes between Samsung and Apple

In the United Kingdom, the main dispute between Samsung and Apple was over Apple’s community registered design 000181607-0001. This is the same design Apple uses for iPhones and iPads (two of its leading products). Samsung sought a declaration from the British High Court that three of their products did not infringe Apple’s registered design. Apple on the other hand was alleging the contrary. Judge Birrs in his leading judgement recognised that while to the general user similarities between the two products will be apparent, the more informed user would identify a difference between the products. Apple was subsequently ordered to issue a public statement recognising that Samsung’s product did not infringe their registered design. While the judgement ruled in Samsung’s favour, the outcome was probably not on par with what they had hoped. The reason behind Judge Birrs decision received a lot of media traction because it portrayed Samsung’s products as inferior in comparison to Apple’s.

Judge Birss’ exact quote, which can be found at Paragraph 190 of the judgement, was that Samsung’s products “did not have the same understated and extreme simplicity which is possessed by the Apple design. They are not as cool. The overall impression produced is different”.

In America, while the disputes between the two companies involved other forms of alleged intellectual property theft, the crux of the lawsuits revolved around seven utility patents (utility in this context refers to software and hardware). The first trial between the two occurred on the 30th of July 2012 and lasted up until late August. At first instance Samsung was found guilty of infringing, amongst other things, three of Apple’s registered patents. The jury awarded Apple $1.5 billion in damages, and Samsung in turn were awarded nothing for their counterclaim. Soon after, Apple was granted an injunction by the United States’ court of appeal. The initial decision and subsequent injunction was riddled with controversy.

As it stands, the dispute between Apple and Samsung is still on going. On June of this year the International Trade Commission (ITC), a quasi-judicial federal agency of the US, reviewed a decision made by the American courts in September of 2012. The ITC held that Apple did infringe a patent registered by Samsung regarding 3G technology. This decision brought with it a temporary ban on the sale of older versions of the iPad and the iPhone in the US. However, early this month, the ruling was vetoed by trade representative Mark Froman on behalf of President Obama. President Obama attributed his veto to the unwarranted effects this decision would have had on the domestic economy. Interestingly enough, just this past week the ITC reviewed a preliminary ruling given on October of 2012 which cited Samsung as infringing four of Apple’s patents. The ITC ruled in Apple’s favour by upholding the previous decision. Like the previous ruling, this one also includes a temporary ban on sales, however this time the ban may be on older Samsung products. As expected there is much speculation on whether or not the President will intervene in this decision as well.

The significance of the dispute between Apple and Samsung in relation to patent law should not be understated. Under both UK and US jurisdictions, a patent is valid for duration of twenty years. However in the technology industry, innovation and development happens so rapidly that the unique features of a registered patent can become common market knowledge in a matter of one to two years. This instilled a culture of reliance in the industry; in order for the companies to provide products with features which are expected in the marketplace, they need to use patents which they don’t have and rely on each other to license out the patents or turn a blind eye. It is evident from the Apple and Samsung dispute that the culture of reliance, while effective in the interim, is no longer a viable loophole for promoting innovation in an increasingly bellicose industry. With no viable alternative, the technology industry is at risk of having the rate of innovation significantly hindered by patent law. The solution may be the obvious; the duration of protection granted by patent law needs to be reduced so that it can be proportional to the rate of innovation. As it stands, the duration of twenty years provides too much protection to the initial inventor and it is having the adverse effect of hindering innovation rather than promoting it. What exactly constitutes a proportionate length of time is a matter which can (and should) be heavily debated, although one would guess that around three to five years will be appropriate.

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