Why Apple beats 'unfair' Samsung Galaxy design in US court

Apple [AAPL] has been granted a preliminary injunction forbidding sales of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 in the US. The ban is unlikely to impact Samsung's tablet business too much as it only extends to the first-generation Galaxy Tab, but remains a moral victory for Apple, justifying its argument the competing firm copied the iPad design. Naturally the finding faces test in the appeals court.


[ABOVE: Will US court finding be enough to convince Apple critics that the company has an argument to make?]

Samsung competes "unfairly"

You can read in-depth about the case here and here. What is interesting is US District Judge Lucy Koh's statement on the matter, in which she said: "Although Samsung has a right to compete, it does not have a right to compete unfairly, by flooding the market with infringing products."

She also wrote: "While Samsung will certainly suffer lost sales from the issuance of an injunction, the hardship to Apple of having to directly compete with Samsung's infringing products outweighs Samsung's harm in light of the previous findings by the Court."

In a previous statement, Apple stuck to its moral victory guns: "It's no coincidence that Samsung's latest products look a lot like the iPhone and iPad, from the shape of the hardware to the user interface and even the packaging. This kind of blatant copying is wrong and, as we've said many times before, we need to protect Apple's intellectual property when companies steal our ideas."

Apple critics are already rushing to Samsung's defense. They really don't need to. Samsung has become Apple's principal hardware competitor, and there's little doubt that the continuing legal battles between the two firms have helped the Galaxy maker to build its brand in international markets.

The months and years of courtroom drama have also enabled Apple critics to get behind Samsung, arguing the former is being too aggressive in its use of patents as it attempts to stand up to competitors.

In other words, the legal drama has done little to help Apple because it has given its enemies a chance to gather behind Samsung's flag, consolidating their strength and helping build the Korean companies public appeal.


[ABOVE: Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 uses this design for the power cable.]

Closely related

All the same, it's pretty clear the Galaxy Tab 10.1 was heavily inspired by the iPad -- even the shape of the power adaptor seems to me to be extremely reminiscent of that provided with the iPad. The evident iPad inspiration behind the design was cause enough for the court to ban Samsung from contravening the iPad's protecting patent, U.S. Design Patent No. D504,889.

To win this case, Apple had to prove the Galaxy Tab 10.1 would look substantially similar in the eyes of an ordinary observer.

In the U.S., Apple must only satisfy a single requirement to prove its claim. Following a legal precedent that dates back to an 1871 decision in the Gorham v. Company v. White case it only needs to prove the following:  

"If, in the eye of an ordinary observer, giving such attention as a purchaser usually gives, two designs are substantially the same -- if the resemblance is such as to deceive such an observer and sufficient to induce him to purchase one supposing it to be the other -- the one first patented is infringed by the other."

The case has had some ups and downs, but Judge Koh yesterday declared the Samsung tablet to be "virtually indistinguishable" from Apple's iPad. And while during the case the Judge has at times seemed to question Apple's patent claims while the case wound through her court, she has not been impressed with Samsung's defense. "Samsung has not raised a substantial question as to the validity of the D'889 Patent," she said.

Remember that Samsung's counsel couldn't distinguish the two products when Judge Koh showed them in the courtroom at a limited distance.


[ABOVE: And here's the power cable used in the iPad.]

Building reputations

This isn't the end of this battle. Samsung will appeal the case. Given the way courtroom cases twist around during the legal process the company may even win.However, in truth Samsung has already benefited from the drama, which has cast it as Apple's leading competitor and helped it build profile and marketshare.

If however it fails to win the case, then Apple will be able to demand damages, and will also be able to point to the judgment as proof positive that Samsung is capable of copying its ideas.

Competition between the two firms will intensify. In a statement provided to me this morning, Strategy Analytics analyst, Neil Mawston, noted the emergence of Samsung as Apple's chief competitor, writing: "Some mobile operators are becoming concerned about the high level of subsidies they spend on the iPhone, while Samsung is expanding its popular Galaxy portfolio and providing Apple with more credible competition."

Apple and Samsung between them account for 55 percent of the smartphone market and 90 percent of the profits. Apple has generated $150 billion in revenue since it launched the iPhone, the analyst said.

With numbers like these, surely its not surprising both firms are prepared to take to the courts to defend their place in the rapidly-expanding sector.

'Switch off your photocopiers'

Speaking in April, Apple CEO, Tim Cook explained Apple's position:

"I've always hated litigation, and I continue to hate it. We just want people to invent their own stuff. And so if we could get to some kind of arrangement where we could be assured that's the case and a fair settlement on the stuff that's occurred, I would highly prefer to settle versus battle. But it -- the key thing is that it's very important that Apple not become the developer for the world. We need people to invent their own stuff."

That the US courts have now agreed with Apple that Samsung has created a product "virtually indistinguishable" from the iPad proves Apple's claim. In other cases wending through the courts, Apple is attempting to show elements of Google's Android OS also copies its ideas.

The litigation between Apple and others seems to be becoming uglier, with some critics noting "false claims" being made on part of Google and Motorola. The ITC has also begun reviewing a previous ruling against Apple, with particular regard to the use of industry-standard FRAND patents against the firm.

With all this in mind it's pretty clear that litigation between Apple and others in the mobile devices industry will continue for some time yet.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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