Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Apple's Big Win

The big news last week was the verdict in the “tech trial of the century,” the lawsuit brought by Apple against Samsung for infringement of various patents related to Apple’s iPhone and iPad designs and technology.

Apple was the big winner in this jury trial that lasted nearly four weeks, and involved complex evidence, allegations of evidence tampering, media leaks, infringement counterclaims by Samsung, a 20-page verdict form and 100 pages of jury instructions.  While I’m not sure that it has the drama to be made into a movie (or even a television movie-of-the week), the $1 billion plus damage award to Apple is certainly attention-getting.  But that’s not the half of it.

Apple sued Samsung claiming, among other things, infringement of several utility and design patents.  The jury found that Samsung infringed all but one of the design patents - willfully in some cases - so the damage award could still go up.

The key here is that in finding infringement, the jury determined that the Apple patents were valid.  This is a big deal.  Many in the industry, as well as general techies, have suggested that at least some of the Apple patents should never have been granted.  In some cases, these beliefs are based on reasonable arguments that certain of the technology is not “useful”, “new” and/or “nonobvious” under the standards required to qualify for patent protection.  In other cases, it is out of concern for the potential market limitations that could, and are likely to occur from Apple’s favored position.   In still others, it is just envy or dislike of Apple.  Whatever the reason, most agree that validation of  Apple’s exclusive right to technologies such as the “pinch and zoom” and “bounce-back” features, as well as some relatively trivial “design” features,  is sure to severely limit competition – at least in the short term. 

Samsung has been the largest seller of smartphones in the U.S. for the past couple of years, and the single biggest user of Google’s Android operating system.  There is little doubt in the industry that Google is Apple’s ultimate target, but it’s still anyone’s guess whether Apple will take on Google directly or bring Samsung-type suits against other manufactures of smartphones and tablet computers using the Android system.   For the present, Apple is expected to use the verdict to seek an immediate injunction against the further sale in the U.S. of Samsung products (of which there are several) that were found to be infringing one or more of the Apple patents.   That hearing is set for late September so that a number of Samsung products could be off the market for the lucrative holiday season.

While there is still much to come, (e.g., pending cases in other countries, patent re-examinations, appeal of this decision), and considerable speculation about the fall-out from this decision, it seems likely that innovation and competition may be stifled for a while.  Frankly, that’s a price we must be willing to pay for a fair and just application of the law.  But did that happen here?

With all due respect to our current legal system, I have a hard time believing that this is the kind of case we should be sending to a jury.  This is not a case involving rules that we all live with every day and that apply to ordinary human events.  This is a case involving complex laws, complex issues and complex facts.  Is it even fair to expect that persons untrained in the field should be expected to make these decisions after only a few short weeks?  I admit that I don’t know enough to say that this decision is bad law – but I do believe that cases such as this make bad law more likely.

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