Apple has been awarded more than $1bn ($1,049,343,540, to be precise) by a US jury in the Samsung patent infringement case. An appeal by Samsung is almost certain, but the outcome already gives Apple plenty of ammunition as it pursues similar cases against the likes of HTC and Motorola. And the award will be further ammunition for those who argue that the patent wars are getting out of hand.
The US jury decided that Samsung had infringed on three main Apple patents: a 381 ‘bounce back’ scrolling patent; a 915 scrolling and zooming patent; and a 163 ‘tap to zoom’ patent. The overall case originally involved more than a dozen different patents and more than 30 allegedly infringing devices, but Apple pared that down earlier in the case to a core group of patents. In a handful of examples, the jury decided there had been no infringement, but for the most part they sided with Apple. Samsung’s counter-claims were dismissed. Although Apple had been seeking $2.5bn, the $1bn should be more than enough to cheer the company.
What does the case mean for the smartphone and tablet industry? I’d imagine it means every manufacturer out there will start being a lot more careful. Certain features of these devices are now seen by customers as being almost standard, and that could make it harder for consumers to leap from one brand (e.g. the iPad) to another (e.g. a Samsung device), because they’ll have to learn a whole range of new control gestures. You can see where this would benefit Apple, effectively helping to lock consumers in to the iPad once they’ve learned how to use the device. Imagine if, years and years ago, one company had patented the idea of a PC mouse, a laptop trackpad and a laptop’s hinged lid…
On the other hand, manufacturers can avoid the problem by copying less and innovating more. Consumers would hardly benefit if every tablet manufacturer came out with basically the same device, bar a few minor modifications. If patents prevent a manufacturer from copying a popular feature on a rival’s device, the obvious answer is to come up with something better, something that will draw consumers and that the rival, then, will be unable to copy. As long as there’s a level playing field, companies that are capable of real innovation should be able to find new avenues. One thing’s for sure: some day, someone out there is going to come up with an idea that blows the current generation of tablet devices out of the water, and they’re not going to achieve that by slavishly copying existing designs.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, a court came to a very different ruling over the same patents, deciding that Apple and Samsung owed each other damages. Again, there will likely be appeals, from both sides. It’s not long since Apple and Samsung were announcing projects in which they would be working together. Now they’re at one another’s throats on opposite sides of the globe.
Looking ahead, Apple’s real rival is likely to be Google (with Amazon perhaps joining the fray too). As noted earlier, Apple is already targeting Google’s Motorola. But there are some real questions to be asked about how the patent system works. Do patents protect companies when they come up with innovations, or do they prevent consumers from being offered choice? And are juries really best-placed to make decisions in these cases? Apple doesn’t really need the $1bn it was awarded against Samsung, but the legal precedent and moral authority gained by the company could be far more valuable.