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So Did Samsung Score a Major Victory Against Apple?

So the U.S. International Trade Commission has this week issued a major ruling against Apple for allegedly infringing against a key Samsung patent related to 3G technology. If upheld, and that’s not a certainty in such cases, it would mean that imports of several older Apple mobile products that run on AT&T’s network would be blocked. However, only the entry-level iPhone 4 would see potential impact. The other products, which include the iPhone 3GS, the original iPad 3G and the iPad 2 3G, are no longer available.

A hollow victory? Perhaps, it shouldn’t seriously impact your ability to buy an iPhone 4 if you want one. Besides, by the time Apple has appealed the ruling, and a final decision is made, they will have moved on to even newer iPhones. At worst, the iPhone 4, offered free by AT&T with a two-year plan, would be taken off sale for a brief period of time ahead of the arrival of a newer lineup of iPhones. It would hardly seem to matter.

The media, however, has begun to portray this ruling as a major defeat for Apple. But it has pretty much become obvious that, with all the legal interplay around the world involving Apple, Samsung, Motorola and other mobile handset makers, one victory may turn to a defeat or a draw once appealed, or if contradicted by yet another ruling in a different jurisdiction. Very little is ever accomplished beyond enriching high-paid legal teams.

The ruling in question states that the affected Apple products infringed on Samsung’s U.S. Patent No. 7,706,348, which covers an “Apparatus and method for encoding/decoding transport format combination indicator in CDMA mobile communications system,” which involves UMTS wireless technology.

If not overturned, the ban will not go into effect for 60 days, and it’s always possible Apple could win yet a further delay via an appeals court ruling pending resolution. The ruling could also be blocked by President Obama, but a decision of that sort would seem highly unlikely. At worst, I suppose Apple could move as many iPhone 4s into AT&T’s warehouses ahead of the effective date, which would mean that the product would continue to be available until the next model appears.

However, since the next generation iPhones are due no later than September, whatever ultimately happens as a result of this ruling wouldn’t make much of a difference. This is the unfortunate fact of such legal skirmishes. They take so long to move through the judicial process that models that may actually infringe on this or that patent are often discontinued before the rulings are issued, or the appeal process is complete. All that hard work for so little gain. You wonder why they even bother.

This doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t complain if their intellectual property is infringed upon. Unfortunately, patents may be so general or so confusing as to confound any attempt by legal experts to figure out their impact. I also wonder if a large firm, such as Apple, might simply take a chance when entering into a gray area, figuring that even an unfavorable patent ruling will have little or no impact by the time it is granted. This is the sort of calculated risk that usually pays off, and don’t get me started about essential standard patents, where equal licensing terms are required, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

Some suggest that Apple should spend more time innovating than suing, but the same could possibly be said about Samsung, Motorola and other companies that have filed lawsuits alleging patent infringement.

But the worst problems involve so-called “patent trolls,” firms that buy up loads of patents but actually do not build anything. They simply go after other companies, large and small, demanding royalties for alleged infringement. Some companies may just pay up so as not to get embroiled in a costly legal dispute.

In a recent series of actions, President Obama came down hard against patent trolls. He issued a set of executive orders that call for rules that require disclosure of the actual owners of patents, and for more stringent government review of patent applications. He also called on Congress to pass legislation that would be designed to reduce the number of supposedly frivolous patent lawsuits.

Such legislation would, for example, allow courts to assess monetary sanctions against parties that file what are considered to be frivolous lawsuits. Such a sanction could, for example, include paying the other party’s legal fees. However, getting the U.S. Congress to do anything in the current political climate would stand but a slight chance of succeeding.

In the meantime, I expect little is going to change. Apple will win a few, lose a few, and the same is true for other companies. At the end of the day, few if any products will be forced off sale, but maybe a few software or hardware changes will be made to halt alleged infringement. But it won’t mean much of a change in your ability to buy the products you want with the features you want.

To paraphrase what someone once said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.