Whose Patent is It Anyway?: The Ongoing Legal Legacy Between Samsung and Apple

Whose Patent is It Anyway?: The Ongoing Legal Legacy Between Samsung and Apple

Using a quote that he attributes to Pablo Picasso, the late Steve Jobs stated in a 1994 interview that “good artists copy, great artists steal.” It seems somewhat ironic that Apple Inc., the company he co-founded, now finds itself in an entrenched legal battle with Samsung over a number of alleged patent and trademark infringements. The twist? Samsung is one of Apple’s most important component suppliers and has counter-sued Apple, claiming that a number of their own patents have been infringed by the technology giant.

As previously reported by the IPilogue here, here, and here, the lawsuit began in April of 2011 when Apple served Samsung with a number of claims stating that Samsung had “slavishly” copied device designs, packaging, and application icons. Samsung quickly responded with its countersuit, alleging that Apple products infringed a number of Samsung’s own patents. These actions have led to more than 50 lawsuits being filed between the two companies in 10 countries. While this number seems large, it could become even larger as the suits will likely be split up by the courts.

Even more mind-boggling than the number of lawsuits concurrently taking place between Apple and Samsung is the number of claims that were initially made by Apple against Samsung in April 2011. Since the initial filings, a number of patent claims from both sides have been dropped. Judge Lucy Koh is overseeing the suit in California and recently stated that to force a jury to pass judgment on so many claims would be a “cruel and unusual punishment” and ordered both companies to reduce the number of claims being made against each other. The dropped claims will shrink the potential damages that either side can obtain but if Apple’s claims are dismissed without prejudice (as they are aiming to do), it could allow them to take another bite at the proverbial apple.

While the order has been successful in reducing the number of claims that the California case will now center on, both sides seem as staunch and immovable on the issues as ever. Mediation is scheduled for the end of May 2012, but there is doubt within the technology, business, and legal communities that this will lead to a settlement before the case goes to trial. However unlikely, there may be some surprises during mediation in the upcoming months. Tim Cook, Apple’s current CEO, has stated that he “always hated litigation” and that Apple “just want[s] people to invent their own stuff.” While the statement points towards a willingness to settle with Samsung and move on, it is a very different mindset from the one that Steve Jobs had prior to his death. In Jobs’ biography, author Walter Isaacson revealed that the co-founder had the intention of “destroy[ing] Android, because it’s a stolen product.” In recent years, HTC and Motorola have both been legally at-odds with Apple over the manufacture and distribution of Android-based mobile devices. As Samsung has recently become the number one smartphone manufacturer in the world and creates Android-based devices, one begins to wonder if Apple’s intentions in these lawsuits are more far-reaching than to solely prevent others from profiting from Apple’s designs. This thought has crossed the mind of Google executive David Drummond, who has suggested that Apple, among other companies, is attempting to litigate Google out of the wireless market rather than innovate better products.

Looking at the Samsung Galaxy side-by-side with the Apple iPhone, there are a number of definite resemblances in both hardware and software. (See picture here for reference.) Surely, Apple has every right to ensure that their patents are not infringed upon by others; However, Samsung does have some strong arguments – is it fair for Apple to have the ability to patent something akin to “a rectangular product shape with all four corners uniformly rounded”? To an extent, with these kinds of products, there is only so much a designer can potentially do – the question the courts will have to look at is whether Samsung used product similarities to confuse consumers.

As was mentioned earlier, this case is of particular note for the reason that Samsung is one of Apple’s most important suppliers of components, which are used across a variety of Apple products. So far, the companies have been able to keep their business dealings separate from the lawsuit – a business deal that is beneficial to both parties. The relationship between the two companies and the recent batch of dropped claims may be pointing towards a settlement, but their attitudes towards this legal battle say otherwise. As this case proceeds, it will be interesting to see if both companies can play nice with one another if one party ends up the clear victor in the courtroom.

Adam Del Gobbo is a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.