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  • Apple’s Legal Skirmishes Are Far From Over

    August 28th, 2012

    So Apple got a favorable jury verdict in a California Federal court. Our favorite fruit company was awarded over a billion dollars, although it may be years, if ever, before the check is in the mail. Samsung’s stock price is down, while Apple’s has soared. Is it time to take out the champagne glasses yet and celebrate?

    I suppose it’s only logical for Apple fans to feel vindicated. What Steve Jobs and Tim Cook said was clearly true. Other companies were busy stealing Apple’s inventions and producing knock-off smartphones, tablets, and so on and so forth. It had to be true, because the jury said so.

    But court actions of this scope aren’t so cut and dry. Yes, Apple won the jury verdict, but the case is far from over. On September 20, Federal Judge Lucy Koh will consider motions by Apple to ban eight Samsung smartphones that allegedly infringe Apple patents. At the same time, Judge Koh could decide whether to invalidate all or part of the jury’s verdict, and, if upheld, whether Apple is entitled to triple damages because the infringement was willful.

    Certainly Samsung’s lawyers will be busy filing their own motions, and that’s before the appeals process begins. If Samsung’s appeal fails, they could move to a higher court, maybe even the U.S. Supreme Court, with no guarantee that anything is going to change. Months can easily become years, although the Samsung products named in the case will be long out of production. In the meantime, it’s certain that Samsung will be busy redesigning their current products in efforts to workaround Apple’s intellectual property. In fact, that appears to have already happened in some cases.

    In addition, this single action, although sending shock waves through the tech industry, won’t necessarily slow the number of legal filings around the world. Armed with this singular victory, Apple is apt to be tempted to go after other companies, maybe even Google, who appears to be blaming Samsung for the infringements, saying it was due to their custom additions to Android.

    As you readers know, Samsung is perhaps the world’s largest seller of components to Apple, but that division is run separate from the mobile division. However, it’s also possible that Samsung’s executives will be anxious to put this embarrassing episode behind them and attempt to make some cross-licensing deals with Apple. In the end, Apple could receive hundreds of millions of dollars from Android licensees, most of whom are already paying Microsoft to license their intellectual property.

    You’d think this legal by-play would encourage these smartphone makers to look elsewhere for an OS. It’s possible some might want to try the WebOS, from the former Palm division of HP, which has been open sourced. Apple never went after Palm, although it would take a lot of expensive development to make WebOS up to date and more competitive with the iOS and Android.

    Another possible beneficiary is Microsoft. Apple already has cross-licensing agreements in place with Microsoft, and at least some handset makers who build Android gear have also licensed Windows Phone. Smartphone makers would have an opportunity to use a platform that isn’t involved in these legal skirmishes, and some analysts are already suggesting that Windows Phone might indeed suddenly become relevant rather than an afterthought.

    Unfortunately for Microsoft, people who buy smartphones have largely ignored Windows Phone. A big ad campaign by AT&T to push the Nokia Lumia 900 didn’t do so well. Sales remained tepid, and Nokia continues to lose bundles of money on their smartphone division. As the first Windows Phone vendor among equals, you’d think Nokia would want to consider other alternatives.

    It’s also true that such smartphone makers as HTC have tried Windows Phone and failed. That companies are anxious to ditch Android isn’t going to make the public suddenly adore Windows Phone. That doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

    Perhaps there’s room for Research In Motion, assuming the beleaguered company is interested in licensing the BlackBerry OS. But that might be the only hope for RIM.  But smartphones powered by BlackBerry won’t suddenly become best sellers because smartphone makers are swearing off Android. At worst, Apple’s legal victory may slow the development process of new gear, as Google and their licensees work harder to make sure that no OS, app features, or trade dress match Apple too closely.

    I suppose it’s even possible one of the smartphone makers will consider building their own OS, although Samsung’s efforts in that direction haven’t spread beyond basic feature phones. The same is true for Nokia, who set aside Symbian and embraced Windows Phone, at least for smartphones.

    Now some of the critics would rather suggest that the customer is being hurt, because there will be fewer products on the market. I’d rather think that we might see fewer models, but they’d be more innovative, maybe even offer features that take smartphones in a new direction, as handset makers struggle, for once, not to imitate Apple. How can anyone say that would be a bad thing?

    Meantime, the legal skirmishes will continue, and some suggest the situation may only get worse before it gets better.



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    7 Responses to “Apple’s Legal Skirmishes Are Far From Over”

    1. DaveD says:

      Having lost a long and tough “Mac look and feel” case to Microsoft due to a poorly-worded contract in the early 90’s, must have made Apple determined to not let this happen again. Alas for Microsoft copying the Mac GUI and reaping financial successes, what goes around – comes around, ended being tagged by the Justice Department and the European Union as a monopolist years later. As punishment, Microsoft’s operations had to be examined for approval (subject to fines) for many years.

      When Apple’s iPod attained market success, Creative Technology (maker of Nomad MP3 players) sued for patent infringement. Apple counter-sued. More suits and counter-suits afterward ended with Apple settling with a payout to Creative of $100 million and dropping all lawsuits.

      Samsung which slavishly copied the iPhone (IMO only the blind cannot see this) did not want to take up Apple’s offer of a licensing agreement. So Apple had to take Samsung to court to protect the “iPhone look and feel.”

    2. Richard says:

      Gene,

      I find it interesting that you are one of the very few people not cheering the end of the road and victory. This matter is very far from over.

      There are substantial questions about the rulings of the trial court on matters of evidence, law, jury instructions, and, indeed, even on the selection of the jury itself. There is also the little matter of inconsistent verdicts which could invalidate the verdict in whole or in part. The more the jury foreman talks, the more I wonder about the propriety of jury deliberations.

      Frankly, I am in the apparently small group of Apple users who think that many of the patents Apple sought to enforce are invalid. Apart from prior art, I am drawn inescapably to the conclusion that the patents should never have been awarded (“improvidently awarded”) because they are simply obvious.

      I am reminded of the Wright brothers who became embroiled in patent litigation and were surpassed with surprising rapidity as their competitors focused on advancements.

      Only time will reveal the ultimate outcome and I do not believe that the final outcome will be known any time soon.

      Cheers

    3. DaveD says:

      @Richard,

      “Apart from prior art, I am drawn inescapably to the conclusion that the patents should never have been awarded (“improvidently awarded”) because they are simply obvious.”

      Were they so obvious at the time the iPhone was introduced in 2007? Apple most likely have patent papers filed before 2007 as the approval process can take years.

    4. Richard says:

      Yes, patent filings take a while.

      Prior art demonstrates that someone else did it before you…i.e. you copied them.

      I do think it rather obvious that a computer screen (that’s what a smart phone display is) with icons for the various applications, which are pretty much the same as those that had been used on computer displays for a long time, are nothing new and unique, to cite but one example.

      You must remember that the USPTO is buried in various applications and devotes rather little time to any of them. They are greatly overworked and understaffed. The office has even admitted that they have “improvidently awarded” any number of patents. I have seen patents which, in effect, attempt to patent gravity. Come on, if gravity were patentable (it’s not), it would have been patentable by a guy named Newton a long time ago. 😉

      A patent is nothing more nor less than a piece of paper that gives one the right to sue. Apple have done so. At least at the trial court they have prevailed. We shall see what comes next.

      Cheers

    5. dfs says:

      I can’t help wondering whether, under patent law as it currently exists, Xerox could have successfully sued Apple for its use of the graphic interface it had introduced in Xerox PARC and further developed in Xerox Alto and Xerox Star (this interface used icons, windows, and menus, including pop-up ones).

    6. dfs says:

      Apple did make some financial deal with Xerox that gained it access to PARC, but that didn’t stop Xerox from suing Apple for copyright violation (see this 1980 NYT story: http://www.nytimes.com/1989/12/15/business/company-news-xerox-sues-apple-computer-over-macintosh-copyright.html). Xerox lost. But my point is that, in view of subsequent changes in copyright law, had that suit happened today the result might have been very different.

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