Over the past 5 years, smartphone makers suing each other has become nearly as booming a business as making smartphones. Nearly every major maker and seller of smartphones has been involved in a suit alleging infringement of numerous patents covering various elements of the phones’ design. However, amidst the discussions of products being shut out of markets and billion-dollar settlements, it can be hard to understand what the actual technologies and concepts being fought over are. Hence, looking at the allegations of patent infringement in one lawsuit between Apple and Samsung, may prove helpful in understanding the smartphone “patent wars” and the wider discussion on intellectual property.
The first part of Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung covered the alleged infringement of US Patent No. 5,946,647 (owned by Apple), which lays claim to “a computer-based system for detecting structures in data and performing actions on detected structures (1).” Apple claimed their patent was infringed upon by Samsung’s built-in browser and messenger applications’ ability to perform actions on unique pieces of data such as dates, phone numbers, and email addresses embedded within data read by those applications (2). The court ruled that Samsung was not in violation of Apple’s patent, though not because Apple’s patent was ruled invalid, but because the program that analyzed data for the previously mentioned unique data structures was run locally on Samsung smartphones, rather than on a separate “analyzer server” which was listed as part of the system claimed by patent 5,946,647 (2). The second patent which Apple claimed Samsung’s devices infringed upon (US Patent No. 8,074,172), lays claim to “a method, system, and graphical user interface for providing word recommendations,” which is colloquially known as autocorrect or autocomplete (3). The third patent laid claim to a system for unlocking a touch device “via gestures performed on the touch-sensitive display (4).” Both of these patents were deemed invalid due to the existence of similar systems and the broad nature of the claims (2).
Looking at how the courts have ruled on Apple’s claims of patent infringement, one may to ask what is the purpose of these types of software patents . Unlike patents on physical goods like machines or pharmaceuticals, which typically cover specific designs or chemicals, software patents like the ones used in Apple v. Samsung lay claim to broad concepts. Moreover, unlike physical goods, which have costs associated with production and transportation, software makers incur virtually no costs in distributing their programs. As such, one may be able to justify patents on specific implementations of a software concept (i.e. the actual code in the software) on the grounds that such patents help to protect the investment made to implement said concept just as physical patents protect the investment to produce a physical invention. However, many of the patents used in the slew of smartphone lawsuits seem to be intended to protect smartphone makers’ market share rather than their investments .
(1) Miller, James R., Thomas Bonura, Nardi Bonnie, and David Wright. System and Method for Performing an Action on a Structure in Computer-generated Data. US Patent 5,946,647, filed February 1, 1996, and issued August 31, 1999.
(2) Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co., LTD. (United States District Court for the Northern District of California February 26, 2016) (United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Dist. file).
(3) Kocienda, Kenneth and Bas Ording. Method, system, and graphical user interface for providing word recommendations. US Patent 8,074,172, filed December 6, 2011, and issued January 5, 2007.
(4) Chaudhri; Imran, Bas Ording, Freddy Allen Anzures, Marcel Van Os, Stephen O. Lemay, Scott Forstall, and Greg Christie. Unlocking a device by performing gestures on an unlock image. US Patent 8,046,721, filed October 25, 2011, and issued June 2, 2009.
(5) Santorelli, Michael J. "What Price Victory? Apple, Samsung, and the Legacy of the Smartphone Patent War - Morning Consult." Morning Consult. Morning Consult, 20 July 2015. Web. 28 June 2016.
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