It was the parting ratio shot heard around the world, aimed at the breast pocket of designers everywhere, when his Honour Judge Birss QC offered perhaps the most stinging barb of all: Your tablet computer is just not as cool …
Covering well traversed ground for IP Whiteboard, we re-join Apple and Samsung in their ongoing, world-wide stoush over the intellectual property rights in their tablet computer offerings. In the blue corner, Apple’s market-leading iPad; in the red corner, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab (versions 7.7, 8.9 and 10.1).
To date, the parties had largely disputed utility patents that focused on functionality or manufacturing techniques, but this particular case between Samsung Electronics (UK) Limited and Apple Inc was about the visual design of the tablets themselves.
Apple submitted to the court that there were seven main groups of features where the Samsung offerings infringed Apple’s design, including "a rectangular, biaxially symmetrical slab with four evenly, slightly rounded corners", and "overall, a design of extreme simplicity…".
The challenge for the Court was threefold. First, reconcile the iPad with the prior art base for tablets. Second, consider to what extent the design elements were driven by function, or necessity, rather than creativity. Finally, the Court would need to compare the iPad with the Galaxy devices to determine if Samsung’s offerings "… produced on the informed user a different overall impression".
The Court made the point that the very portable, lightweight nature of these tablets undercuts much of the design process, and both products could be clearly seen as part of the "family … of its kindred prior art base". But as it turns out, the Court concluded that the vast bulk of the iPad’s features are a by-product of design choices, rather than being dictated by function.
Further, the Court found that, for the most part, Samsung’s Galaxy Tabs were similar in each of the 7 areas – variously describing the features as "virtually identical", "trivial (difference)", and "… very, very similar". What separated the products in the end was the thinness of the Galaxy Tabs, and the detailing on the back of the device – nuances that the Court considered would not be lost on the "informed user".
Samsung would have been very happy with this result, and all the parties would have marched off to prepare for their next engagement (or possibly the appeal to this one…), but the Court was not done.
In a cruel, Pyrrhic-like closing, the Court stated that Samsung’s products "do not have the same understated and extreme simplicity which is possessed by the Apple design. They are not as cool". Thus: "The overall impression produced is different".
You could not buy publicity like that. Just goes to show – you can win the legal battle, but lose the marketing war.