TIME Patent Wars

The Apple vs. Samsung Patent War Continues, but the Stakes Are Lower

A man is silhouetted against a video screen with Apple and Samsung logos as he poses with a Samsung Galaxy S4 in this photo illustration taken in the central Bosnian town of Zenica
Dado Ruvic / Reuters

The look and feel of Samsung's hardware isn't an issue this time around.

Apple is once again trying to extract some cash from Samsung’s Android phone business in a new patent infringement trial, which kicks off today.

Many of the headlines have focused on Google’s potential involvement. Because Samsung says four of Apple’s five infringement claims relate to general Android features, Google engineers will reportedly take the stand to testify in Samsung’s defense. That could make the latest case even more of a Google vs. Apple proxy battle than previous Apple lawsuits against Android vendors. (Apple has never sued Google directly, possibly because it’s harder to claim damages on a company that licenses its Android software for free.)

While the potential for Google testimony is noteworthy, what strikes me even more is how mundane this Apple-Samsung lawsuit is compared to the first one, which reached a jury verdict in 2012.

Apple’s original lawsuit against Samsung was unique because it included design patents. Unlike the lawsuits Apple has filed against HTC, Motorola and other vendors, Apple argued that Samsung was ripping off the look and feel of the iPhone and iPad, not just a few software features.

(A common misinterpretation, by the way, is that Apple was claiming ownership over obvious design elements, such as rounded rectangles. In reality, Apple claimed that the way many of those individual elements came together had been copied by Samsung.)

A jury eventually found Samsung guilty of infringing on Apple’s design patents for smartphones, but not for tablets. But as I noted back in 2012, Samsung had already hedged its bets at that point. The company drastically changed the look of its phones starting with the Galaxy S III, so they hardly resemble the iPhone.

In terms of actual consumer impact, this was arguably the most noticeable outcome from the original case, and it happened long before the trial wrapped up. Older phones that were found to have infringed on Apple’s designs were already outdated when the trial was over, and Apple has failed to get them banned anyway.

This time, Apple isn’t making any trade dress claims. Instead, the five patents deal specifically with software features, including slide to unlock, background data syncing, auto-complete, universal search and turning certain messages data into links. For these alleged infringements, Apple is seeking about $2 billion in damages, according to the Wall Street Journal — roughly $500,000 less than what Apple sought in the first trial.

If you’re a typical Samsung user, the dollar figures don’t matter much. Even if Apple wins, the two companies will spend years arguing over money owed — as they still are for the original case — and the final amount will be a fraction of what both companies make in any given quarter.

What matters more is the potential impact on Samsung’s products. But as we’ve seen in other cases, software patents can often be worked around in ways that are barely noticeable. For instance, Samsung dealt with Apple’s “overscroll bounce” effect in the 2012 lawsuit by using a different visual effect as you scroll past the boundary of a web page. That same year, HTC worked around an Apple patent governing what happens when you tap on a phone number, taking users into the phone’s dialer instead of showing a pop-up dialog box. Whereas the physical design of a phone must be planned months or years in advance, a software update can be delivered instantly at no cost, so there’s less risk of future products being jeopardized.

Perhaps just as importantly, this won’t be a case where Apple can embarrass Samsung in the court of public opinion, as it did last time when Samsung’s lawyers couldn’t tell an iPad from a Galaxy Tab. That’s a design issue, and it won’t come up in this case. So while the dollar figures are similar this time around, there’s a lot less on the line.

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