Apple vs Samsung: Who Owns the Rectangle?

(Photo: gillyberlin)

This week in San Jose, a trial opened that may be the World War III of patents. Apple is suing Samsung, alleging that the Korean tech giant has knocked off many features of its iPhone and iPad. Apple wants $2.5 billion in damages – a record in a patent case — and a court order forbidding Samsung from selling some of its most popular phones and tablets in the United States. Samsung claims that Apple is the one stealing, and that some of Apple’s patents are invalid because they are so commonplace.  

With respect to at least one of Apple’s patents, Samsung has a point. A patent at the heart of the dispute. Design Patent 504,889 — which lists Steve Jobs and Apple design guru Jonathan Ive, among others, as the “inventors” — is a claim for a rectangular electronic device with rounded corners. That’s right, Apple is claiming control over rectangles. The full claim is only 2 lines long, and amazingly broad – Apple is claiming all devices with the basic shape shown here.

The original reading technology—paper—is rectangular, and it’s no surprise that computer screens have long used the same shape. Apple isn’t the first firm to think of a rectangular-shaped device–in fact, both Samsung and Apple may have been working off of earlier rectangular designs from Sony. But even if Apple got to the rectangle first, wouldn’t the idea be obvious? (Books are rectangular; so are flat-panel TVs, laptop screens, the Kindle, and we’re pretty sure the dusty French digital pioneer, Minitel).

Still, the Patent and Trademark Office gave Apple a rectangle patent, which illustrates an important point about our IP system: it is pretty easy to get an absurd patent awarded. Actually defending it in court, as Apple now has to do, is of course more complicated.  

Understanding this patent brawl is important because it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Apple and Samsung are battling in courtrooms in Britain and Germany, and an all-star lineup of tech companies are locked in dozens of similar suits across the globe. And if Apple wins, Samsung isn’t the only (or even the principal) casualty.  Many of Apple’s patent claims, should they prevail, could be pressed against all smartphones that (like Samsung’s) run Google’s Android. It’s tempting to view this litigation as a stalking horse for the broader Apple vs. Google showdown – which, at the moment, Android is winning.  Indeed, phones like Samsung’s new Galaxy III S, which are thinner and sport bigger screens than the iPhone, are making the iPhone look outdated. Is it a coincidence that at the moment that Apple appears to be losing its market edge it turns to the courtroom?

We know one thing for sure: all of this litigation is great news for the law firms involved. Win or lose, they’ll make tens and possibly hundreds of millions in legal fees. Whether the smartphone litigation explosion is good news for the rest of us, however, is far from clear. We have patents to encourage innovators to invent nifty new features for devices like smartphones.  But when is a feature too basic to deny others the right to knock it off?  Could Apple, or someone else, patent a buttonless phone?  An all-black phone?  A phone with a “swipe-to-unlock” feature? (Actually, Apple has patented that . . . .).

The smartphone wars highlight a question of surpassing current importance: what’s the right tradeoff between patents and competition?  The courts hearing these patent cases are going to play a huge – perhaps outsized – role in determining those questions for hundreds of millions of consumers who carry smartphones and tablets. And the amount of money at stake is simply astronomical. Is the patent system up to the task?

Nick Martin

I'm going to patent any round, hand-held devise that projects a 3-D holographic image from the palm of your hand.


It's a good question. I hope so. But the Constitution is up to the task. The patent and copyright clause reads:

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

It seems to me that Apple's claims run afoul of two parts of the clause: First, it's ludicrous for Apple to claim it discovered the rectangle. Second, such a claim would give Apple a monopoly over nearly all electronic displays. Destroying competition within such a market does not promote progress; it impedes it.

Seminymous Coward

Luckily no US court has ever stubbornly ignored the plain text of the Constitution, read imaginary "implicit" exceptions into the Constitution, or allowed Congress to make laws with only the most tenuous and contrived basis in the clearly delineated scope of their Constitutional authority.

Alex in chicago

Ha. Good one.


What a waste of time, money & resources. The patent process is absurdly complicated and ambiguous.

also the patent pdf link is broken.

Iljitsch van Beijnum

Asking the question is answering it.

I wonder if you could sue the patent office for awarding that rectangle patent. Or successfully claim that because such ridiculous patents are awarded it is impossible to abide by the patent system and therefore can't be held accountable for infringing.

I'm disappointed that a company that I spend so much money with chooses to play this game at this level. It's not like Apple never invented anything that was actually new and innovative.


Here is the actual claim for those interested. Not sure I agree that they patent a "rectangle" or a rounded rectangle at that. Whether it is too broad or not is another question.

The Claim:
"We claim the ornamental design for an electronic device substantially as shown and described"

Steve Nations

OK, I just looked at the design patent. It's not a stretch to say that Apple has patented the rectangle. I can't understand why this patent was awarded. A patent should be the result of effort, research, investment, work, brains, and acquired knowledge. This patent, even a design patent, is silly.

Steve Nations

Mark Zuckerberg just got a patent, after it was repeatedly denied over the course of several years for being too obvious. Something about using privacy data to display a person's relevant information. Obviously.


Smartphones can be protective by copyrights and trademarks.

The hard part is in the implementation of the idea and not the idea itself. It's like movies copy ideas all the time, but their success depends on how well all the pieces come together. It took Microsoft and Google years to be able to release a product that quality was up to par to Apple.

Even now, network effects with its app ecosystem provides a competitive advantage for Apple. Microsoft has enough patents to defend against Apple, but they are having troubles gaining marketshare despite spending billions of dollars. There are huge barriers to entry already without the need for patents. It isn't like they a producing a commodity that is easily duplicated.


Are the authors serious?? Don't you know the difference between a design patent and a utility patent?? PLEASE stop writing about patents!

Eric M. Jones.

"A rectangle with rounded corners" Well then, It's NOT a rectangle IS IT? A rectangle has SHARP corners. In fact these exact soft-cornered shapes can easily be generated with Lame' Equations. See:

So send me the money Samsung. I claim first use and invention of electronic devices with a Cartesian outline of a Lame' figure.


In my opinion, this post is not up to the usual Freakonomics standards. It is one-sided and poorly researched. Many of the author's statements are opinions, but are stated as facts. I am not saying Apple is right in this particular suit, but to present Apple as the sole aggressor in the current tech patent battles is very misleading. Tech patents are an industry-wide problem right now, not a problem caused by Apple.

I take issue with a lot of the statements in this article, but here is my favorite - "Android is winning." Given Apple's record-breaking profits over the past year or so, I ask the economist to define "winning."


fanboi alert!


Not only I want Samsung to win, I also want them and the patent office fined 3 billion $ apple is claiming.

Down with patent abusers.

Joby Elliott

"Still, the Patent and Trademark Office gave Apple a rectangle patent, which illustrates an important point about our IP system: it is pretty easy to get an absurd patent awarded. Actually defending it in court, as Apple now has to do, is of course more complicated."

That in turn illustrates an important point about our society at large: you can't do *anything* without an army of lawyers.

Mike Ratcliffe

It was just a thought at first, but now I strongly believe that a patent should have a limited lifetime and should not be renewable. This way the inventor could make their millions and then companies would be free to use the patented ideas / designs.

I realize that it would not be perfect but it would certainly be better than the system that we currently have.


LOL at Apple.

“Samsung is not some copyist,” Verhoeven said. “Samsung is a major technology company that develops its own innovations.”

-Charles Verhoeven

This is very true. If you do not agree, look at the many innovations of the Galaxy S3 that iPhones do NOT have. Sure it has S-Voice, which has many similarities to Siri, but you know what? My Fascinate had an intuitive global voice search long before anyone heard of Siri, and it included things like looking up numbers to call in a directory, adding items to the calendar, and setting the alarm. S-Voice is a more refined version of it, but that is to be expected as advances in technology are made. If anything Apple stole the idea.

My PPC6700 that I had 2 years before iPhones were released was a rectangle... with rounded edges. Google it, you will see what I mean. Microsoft should sue Apple for stealing their shape. And what is this about suing Google for using the word "ToDo"? Really Apple? You invented that word? Next they will sue for calling devices "phones". Come on guys, take it easy. There is a difference between protecting your intellectual property and trying to bully anyone who poses a threat to your company by way of honest competition. Grow up.