In Apple’s Patent Case, Tech Shifts May Follow
This week, nine jurors are expected to hunker down in a federal courthouse here to decide a case that could change how the world’s smartphones and tablet computers look and work.
After nearly a month of testimony in the legal dogfight between Apple and Samsung over patents, the two parties are expected to make their closing arguments on Tuesday. It will then be up to jurors to hash out which Apple patents, if any, Samsung stepped on when it created devices that compete with the iPhone and iPad. Apple is seeking $2.5 billion in damages from Samsung, while Samsung has asked for $422 million in a countersuit against Apple.
But the effects of the case are likely to be felt far beyond these two companies. If Apple prevails, experts believe Samsung and other rivals in the market will have a much stronger incentive to distinguish their smartphone and tablet products with unique features and designs to avoid further legal tangles.
“I think what we’ll see is a diversification of designs in the marketplace if Apple wins,” said Christopher V. Carani, an intellectual property lawyer for McAndrews, Held & Malloy in Chicago.
And if the jury finds in favor of Samsung, its decision could have the opposite effect, creating a consensus around Apple-like designs for years to come. “Expect to see an awful lot of Apple knockoffs without fear of retribution,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner, the technology research firm.
Although Apple sued Samsung, the outcome of the case has broader implications for other companies that create devices based on Google’s Android operating system, along with Google itself.
Apple wants an order permanently barring Samsung, the largest maker of Android smartphones, from selling products in the United States that violate its patents. A legal victory against Samsung could give Apple extra ammunition in lawsuits it has filed against other Android makers.
Apple is facing a major challenge from Android in the smartphone market, where Google’s operating system powered 64.1 percent of the smartphones shipped worldwide during the second quarter this year, according to Gartner. The iPhone’s share was 18.8 percent.
As part of the case, Apple has accused Samsung of copying patented features in the iPhone and iPad — like the rectangular shape and rounded edges of the iPad’s case and the bounce-back effect when an iPhone user tries to scroll beyond the end of a list or Web page.
Apple presented copious amounts of evidence during the trial, including internal Samsung documents and e-mails, to bolster its argument that Samsung had imitated its products. At the least, the evidence showed the galvanizing effect that the iPhone had on Samsung.
The iPhone set off a “crisis of design” at Samsung, J. K. Shin, Samsung’s president of mobile communications, said in 2010, according to an internal memo. It also quoted him as saying that the difference in the experience of using the iPhone and Samsung phones was akin to “that of Heaven and Earth.”
Apple presented a 132-page internal Samsung strategy document from 2010, in which the company conducted detailed side-by-side comparisons of the iPhone interface with that of a Samsung phone. In one e-mail, a Samsung manager passed on to colleagues criticisms from Google saying a Samsung phone was “too similar to Apple.”
“My impressionistic sense is that Samsung has been on the defensive for most of the trial,” said Mark A. Lemley, a law professor at Stanford.
Rather than mount a full-throated effort to undermine Apple’s claims of imitation, Samsung’s lawyers in the trial argued that many of Apple’s patents were invalid because of earlier technologies that either looked or operated similarly to Apple’s products.
As the trial was winding down last week, Samsung’s legal team also argued that the method Apple used to come up with its figure of $2.5 billion in damages was flawed, inflating the number.
Simply being inspired by Apple’s products is not illegal, said Jorge Contreras, an associate professor of law at American University. He says that Apple’s claims of Samsung infringement on its design patents, a class of inventions related to the exterior look of the iPhone and iPad, are weaker than its arguments for its “utility patents” in the case, which protect various software functions.
Mr. Contreras predicts a “mixed result” in the case, with Apple winning on some of its claims, losing on others and getting nowhere near the amount it is demanding. “Even if Apple wins on a few of its claims, it’s not a market-defeating victory here,” he said.
For now, the only clear victors are the large squads of lawyers who have been busy on the case. More than a dozen members of each side’s legal team have packed the courtroom of Judge Lucy Koh.
Judge Koh has kept the trial on a strict schedule, often venting her frustration at lawyers when she believed they were slowing the case down. On Thursday, she told Bill Lee, one of Apple’s lawyers, that he must be “smoking crack” if he thought Apple could call all the witnesses it wanted to in the remaining hours of the trial. Mr. Lee replied that he was not, in fact, on crack.