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Patent Wars: Consumers Are The Real Victims

The patent wars between different smartphone and tablet manufacturers (Apple, Samsung, Motorola, Google in particular) are well underway. What’s interesting however, is the global impact of such litigation and the consumer market across the world.

In the United States

One may recall the order of a U.S. District Court last month that granted Apple a preliminary injunction against Samsung in relation to the sale of the Samsung Galaxy 10.1 tablet. Judge Koh remarked that there was enough evidence that Samsung had copied the ‘look and feel’ of Apple’s iPad. The order directed the immediate termination of Samsung tablet sales. Notably, this did not cover the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, its flagship product and rumoured to have been designed with the specific intention of circumventing any Apply patents.

But tablets cover a minuscule market compared to smartphones. In June 2012, the same judge also granted an injunction with respect to Samsung’s Nexus phone. While the U.S. Court of appeals has accepted Samsung’s request for an expedited hearing, the issue is far from settled and Apple’s lawyers have been trying hard to restrict the phone’s sales in the U.S.

Bear in mind that the trial itself is slated for July 30th. Interestingly, Judge Koh has deemed these pre-trial hearings and injunctions to be of ‘little value’ to the final outcome.  So it is still possible for Samsung to have the injunctions reversed and prevail in the actual trial

In the United Kingdom

Samsung could garner support from an English court to fight the patent infringement claims in the US, but with a likely loss of prestige. In a ruling certain to vindicate Apple supporters, am English judge held that Samsung could not have infringed Apple’s iPad patents since the Galaxy products were ‘not as cool’. While Apple can take solace in the fact that its core marketing strategy – the ‘cool quotient’, appears to have held some wright in the judge’s mind – the legal outcome was quite different from what one might expect.  In fact, Apple has been ordered to publish an ad in British newspapers and on its website stating that Samsung did not copy the iPad design.


Consumer is the Real Loser

All of this begs the question – where does the consumer fit in? What of the consumer that does not desire an Apple products but wants a device with similar form and functionality? With the constant stream of injunctions banning the sale of alternative devices and products, the consumer appears the real victim of the patent wars.

The sole voice of reason, it appears, is Judge Richard Posner – a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and senior lecturer for the University of Chicago Law School. Not only did he dismiss a patent dispute between Apple and Motorolla (the claims pertained to heuristics, user-interface elements and wireless technology), but also made some biting observations in his June 2012 ruling on the larger issue of software patents. He stated that while he understood the need for patent protection in some cases, he was unconvinced that ‘we really need patents in most industries today’. It appears this was a subtle reference to the smartphone and tablet industry that has witnessed a surge in patent litigation off late. He also remarked that it was unfair for Motorola’s phones to be banned simply because it contained a video streaming feature similar to Apple’s.

In a world where simple features such as ‘slide to unlock’ are considered patentable, where narrow patents are grounds for broad injunctions, one begins to wonder whether tablets of the future will have to be circular to avoid being involved in a patent war.

Image from Vimalrajkappil licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This post was first published on SpicyIP

About Amlan Mohanty

Amlan is a lawyer based in India. He engages in research, writing, speaking and teaching at the intersection of technology, law and policy.