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?

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  1. Nick Martin says:

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

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  2. JBP says:

    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.

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    • Seminymous Coward says:

      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.

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  3. doug says:

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

    also the patent pdf link is broken.

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  4. Iljitsch van Beijnum says:

    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.

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  5. RZ says:

    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”

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    • Steve Nations says:

      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.

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      • RZ says:

        Just so I understand your point. Are you saying that if I draw a rectangle on a piece a paper it is covered by this patent?

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      • Enter your name... says:

        @RZ, I don’t believe that the patent extends that far, I think it only covers rectangular shaped electronics, which is only slightly less absurd. Apple did not make the first rectangular electronics device either. Consider laptops, tablets that existed before the iPad (of which there were many), the two phones I had before my Fascinate which Samsung “stole” from Apple (which were the PPC6700 and the HTC Touch Pro, and virtually every flat panel HDTV on the market (specifically those that were released prior the original iPhone). I could go on and on, but the point is Apple’s version of “innovation” is to find ridiculous things that haven’t been pattented because they are so broad, patent them, and claim that their competitors stole them so as to try to give themselves an unfair edge. They use the patent as evidence that they invented said concept. Go Samsung, I hope they crush Apple with their counter claims, which actually do have some merit.

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      • Eric Smith says:

        Long before the iPhone existed there were these things called PDAs that had essentially all the attributes of an iPhone or iPad within the limits of the technology of the time – They initially didn’t have a phone, but hat came along as soon as it was feasible in a small package. The only thing that it lacked was a finger touch interface, for which Apple indeed developed many of usage patterns.
        It was rectangular, had rounded corners and base, a screen full of icons that you accessed by tapping, downloadable apps and internet connectivity. Practically every technology on the iPhone was the extension of an existing technology on previous devices. The fact that most of this stuff is patented is ludicrous.
        I haven’t bought much Apple stuff – I have never liked how they try to lock you into every bit of their platform and make you buy their expensive hardware. The have tried to keep things as closed as possible so they they can maximize their profits. I was given an iPad, I had to by a $35 dongle to connect my camera to the thing. I couldn’t connect any USB device, only cameras they supported. The reasons people like Apple so much has little to do with technology and lots to do with fashion.

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    • Bart says:

      My LG phone looks like that…

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  6. Steve Nations says:

    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.

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  7. Brian says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  8. doodoodoodoo says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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