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A Potential Reality Check in the Apple/Samsung Battle?

As Apple and Samsung continue to battle each other in courts around the world over patent rights and licensing issues, there may be sign a possible thaw. While it doesn’t mean the two corporate powerhouses will soon shake hands and make up, it’s possible they’ve come to realize that wasting hundreds of millions of dollars has done little but enrich lawyers. It’s not as if, aside from a few court-mandated interface changes to Samsung handsets, products have changed all that much.

You can still buy iPhones, iPads, Samsung handsets, HTC handsets, Motorola handsets, not to mention those bearing the Google Nexus label. And the lawyers keep filing the legal actions. Win a few, lose a few, the lawsuits go on without an end game. Or is it just a case of fighting and fighting until someone cries “uncle.”

Is there any possibility at all that this troubling situation is going to change? Well, it’s a sure thing that a company has the right to protect intellectual property. If Samsung is slavishly copying the iPhone, the iPad and the iOS, then Apple has the perfect right to use the courts to stop that practice if a simple phone conversation or email doesn’t do the job. But quite often it’s all about subtle interface elements that can be easily changed to eliminate the alleged infringement. That appears to have already happened in some cases, such as emulating the bounceback feature from the iOS.

But there’s now a published report this week that Samsung is dropping patent injunction demands filed against Apple in the U.K., France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. In the U.S., Judge Lucy Koh has denied Apple’s petition to block the sale of Samsung handsets found to infringe on the company’s patents in a recent trial. So while Samsung may still have to pay over a billion dollars to Apple, you’ll still be able to buy Galaxy handsets and tablets. Maybe product build costs will have to include a percentage to cover ongoing legal fees.

I suppose you’ve gathered by now that I think these legal actions are getting downright boring, not to mention accomplishing very little in the real world. Samsung, for example, didn’t do themselves any good attacking the qualifications of the jury foreman in the case in which they lost to Apple. It all came across as a sign of supreme desperation, not a legitimate strategy to overturn a verdict they didn’t like.

But you have to wonder why the claims against Apple in Europe were dropped. Is it possible the two parties have come to their senses long enough to sit down and negotiate a possible settlement? Certainly Apple has huge pockets and can fund these legal actions for years on end. The same is true for Samsung, but it’s also true that Samsung earns buckets and buckets of money supplying components to Apple for various products. What makes it all the more peculiar is the fact that Samsung’s mobile division is being accused of infringing patents for products for which they built some of the parts.

Yes, there are reports that Apple is attempting to expand the supply chain to exclude Samsung as much as possible. In time, I suppose that could happen. But it hardly makes sense for Samsung to want to sabotage billions of dollars worth of business because of a few mobile interface elements and the wrong sized rectangles and squares. Where’s the logic in that?

I suppose some of it is due to corporate pride. Samsung isn’t a monolithic empire, but a sprawling conglomeration of individually managed divisions. Each has their own profit and loss statements, and business priorities. That’s why there’s this curious situation where Apple sues one division, but buys products from another division.

Sure, it’s obvious that Tim Cook isn’t near as intractable as Steve Jobs when it comes to pursuing ongoing legal actions against other companies for possible intellectual property infringement. Or at least you’d come to that conclusion based on what Jobs said about going “thermonuclear” against Google. But that statement, quoted in that authorized biography, may be as serious as one wrestler threatening to vanquish another, to destroy one’s opponent. It may be all about posturing. Surely Jobs was a savvy enough businessperson to understand that, in the end, Apple would have to strike settlements with Google, Samsung, Motorola and all the rest.

Indeed, the recent settlement with HTC over various patent issues demonstrates that Apple can be flexible. But even when Jobs was in charge, he made cross-licensing agreements with Microsoft soon after he returned to Apple. Some years ago, Apple made a deal with Creative Labs over iTunes patent issues. Jobs was still alive when, in early 2011, Apple struck a deal with Nokia involving cross-licensing. Then again, Nokia uses Microsoft’s mobile OS, not Google’s, so there were fewer potential emotional roadblocks to a fair settlement.

I only hope all these companies come to their senses in 2013. Well, if I were part of the legal team for any of these companies, I might be disappointed by the lost business. In the end, though, the real legal actions should be focused on the most blatant violations, not the subtleties, even if a company regards them as critical to public acceptance and sales.