It has been said that generals always fight the last war, especially if they have won it. Yet the tales of innovators shine brightly through the pages of history. The recent Apple v. Samsung lawsuit tells of how Apple is now innovating in the legal realm.
In comparison to Samsungs traditional approach, Apples legal strategy was somewhat unorthodox. For instance, a significant portion of Apples case revolved around a little-used poor-stepsister type of patent called a design patent, which protects the look of a product. The other Apple patents were relatively simple user-interface patents. Thus, Apples victory suggests that the simple innovations that engineers, managers and legal departments often ignore including the look of a device or a home screen may deserve more attention than they have previously received.
At the 2007 iPhone unveiling, Steve Jobs famously declared that Apple had patented the hell out of it. Those patents include design patents for the look of the home screen and of the device. The patents also include the rubber-banding effect when a user reaches the end of a screen, and the iPhones pinch-and-zoom functionality. Before the Apple v. Samsung verdict, conventional wisdom said that design patents and UI-related patents were of limited value. Apple, however, relied on design and UI-related patents and was awarded more than $1 billion in damages. The jury found that Apple did not infringe any of the Samsung patents cited in the lawsuit, which included complex data-transmission and image-processing patents.
The lesson is not that typical complex patents are no longer valuable, but that the value of design and UI-related patents may have been misjudged. Indeed, a portion of a particular patents value comes from being able to enforce the patent. And because a jury typically decides infringement, an important factor in patent valuation should be how easy the patent is to explain to a jury. As the Apple v. Samsung verdict clearly demonstrates, convincing a jury that the design of one phone looks like the design of another, or that an infringing phone has a browser window that snaps back, is easier than showing, for example, that the iPhones radio circuitry includes a controller for determining transmission-power factors and for scaling down transmission channels if a maximum allowed power is exceeded. (See U.S. Patent No. 7,447,516.)
Determining how much a patent or a portfolio of patents is worth involves significant guesswork. The Apple v. Samsung verdict reaffirms that the value of IP has become a key component of companies value, but it also suggests that a significant factor in IP valuation has been overlooked. For instance, when a company decides whether to pursue patent protection for an innovative idea, the importance of the idea typically guides the companys decision. This analysis is usually phrased: How important is this idea to our company or competitors? However, Apple has successfully shown that an additional factor to consider when building and enforcing an IP portfolio is the simplicity of the underlying idea and especially how easy the idea is to explain to a nonengineer.
Apple v. Samsung should remind companies, inventors, and attorneys not to overlook simple innovations, including those related to UI and design.
Ben Hoopes, registered patent attorney with a background in electrical engineering. Practicing in Parsons Behle & Latimers Boise office. BHoopes@parsonsbehle.com