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Samsung Vs Apple: Judges divided upon the scale of damages

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Samsung Vs Apple is one of the most talked about cases associated with patent and design issues in recent smart phone history. Both these companies are huge competitors and have been battling it out on and off courts. Samsung is often seen as the poster boy for the Android operating system, and that actually gives their disputes epic proportions. We have come to the culmination of one such case that is now being heard in the US Supreme Court, and no easy decision seems to be appearing upon the horizon.

Okay, before moving any further, lets quickly give the case a quick run over. It started back in 20111 when Apple accused Samsung of stealing its design ideas and incorporating them in its own flagship devices. The case first leaned one way and the other, finally resulting in a $399 million penalty for Samsung. The South Korean company was obviously not too pleased at the prospect of having to pay a sum this large and appealed in higher courts. This cycle of appeal and repeals have finally brought us to the highest court in the land, which is now hearing the arguments of both the sides.

The $399 million figure was reached by a lower court by taking the 11 phone models launched by Samsung, into account. All of these 11 models used one or another of the design patents, that Apple argues, is its rightful property. The three design features that Samsung is said to have siphoned off Apple. The features include iPhone’s signature rectangular face with rounded edges, its bezel edge frame, and the grid arrangement on the device’s home screen.

Now here is the argument. Samsung says that it doesn’t have to forfeit all the profits it generated from the sale of these 11 models. After all, it didn’t copy everything from Apple, right? That is exactly what it is trying to convince the judges overseeing the case in the supreme court. To make things even more complicated, the law that governs this stuff, is open, wide open, to the interpretation of judge and jury.

The law states that a design patent infringer is liable for submitting the  total profits from the sale of an article of manufacture as a fine, that involves designs that are not their own. However, in Samsung’s case, the law leaves room for interpretation. After all, Samsung merely copied the phone’s outer casing and not the whole device. So why should the company be liable to pay all the profits it accumulated from the sales of the said devices?

Apple on the other hand, says that the design was revolutionary — and indeed, it was — and as such, it played a pivotal role in the success of Samsung’s smartphones. Apple is also basing its arguments on the fact that the design of the smartphone, is not something that can be separated on it. All this merely serves to make gauging the real value of the fine Samsung is liable to play, much harder.

Chief Justice John Roberts appeared to be critical of Apple’s claims though, and said that the casing was a faucet of the device’s exterior. He also went on to say that the design patents were at right angles to the actual technology used inside Samsung’s devices. As such, the fine should not be equal to the total profits but would be justified in covering that portion of the profits, that were designed from the design. The other judges appeared to be similarly divided on the issue with one of them going as far as to say that,

If I was a juror, I simply wouldn’t know what to do.

Meanwhile, another Judge was heard to remark,

The phone could be seen by a purchasing consumer as being just … that rounded edge, slim outer shell.

So yes, gauging the accurate value of the outer shell is going to be extremely hard. And it is going to be equally hard for Samsung or Apple to convince the judges of seeing things through their spectacles. A third, neutral party in the case was the US department of Justice, which asked the courts to consider this design patent case in its own context. It also asked the court to keep the importance of the design element to a product as a whole, in mind and look at it contextually, with regards to this particular case.

Meanwhile, most large tech behemoths, including the likes of Facebook, Google, Dell, and eBay, appear to be supporting Samsung’s stance and have even filed a brief to that effect. Interestingly, many of these corporations have supported Apple in many of its cases in the past. It appears as if the tech fraternity has finally matured enough to rise above petty squabbling and support the right party in every case.

This brief actually found mention several times, with one of the judges asking Apple to clarify its position on the same. Apple meanwhile, brought several design professionals from its side, who argued that often, the product is represented by the design itself. However, I find myself wondering about this particular piece of argument. Does it really hold true in these enlightened age and time, when most of us give the spec sheet at least a cursoryl look before making the purchase.

Samsung and company appears to have built a stronger case than what Apple has managed, although ofcourse, it is pure speculation at this point. As both the brief and Samsung’s arguments point out, this case will be setting the precedent for a lot of cases in future scenarios. Keeping from infringing upon design patents is going to be harder in the future, as the products being manufactured by companies overlap, weather knowingly or unwittingly. As Samsung pointed out, would giving all the profits generated by a company to another be justified, just because the former had somehow incorporated a design element of the latter?

Both Apple and Samsung are probably hoping for some good news. While Apple has found itself the target of regulatory bodies the world over, Samsung has found itself in the news for precisely the wrong reason — thanks to its exploding flagship. Meanwhile, the case is almost certain to take some while. It is an important and insanely convoluted case, where the judges will likely end up having to guess the role of the offending device cases, in the sale of Samsung’s devices. That said, it may take the court some time to come to an acceptable decision.

A bibliophile and a business enthusiast.

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