In October, Samsung triumphed in the latest case against Apple. The Court of Appeal has ruled that the design of Samsung’s Galaxy tablet does not infringe Apple’s registered design rights.
Between them, Apple and Samsung make more than half the smartphones in the world. It is perhaps little surprise to anyone that these two giants would eventually end up in court. As, indeed, they did. To be precise, they have ended up in many courts - as well as actions in England, the US and South Korea, there are dozens of law suits in other jurisdictions around the world.
The recent case in the US is well documented. In August, a jury found that Apple’s patents had been infringed by Samsung, and awarded damages of just over $1 billion to Apple. This is by no means the end of it: Samsung has appealed and meanwhile Apple has filed a new lawsuit in the US relating to other Samsung phones and tablets.
In England, the focus was a particular Registered Community Design (RCD) owned by Apple, which Apple alleged was infringed by Samsung’s Galaxy tablets. In fact, the case was started by Samsung which sought a declaration of non-infringement, and Apple counterclaimed for infringement.
'Community design' is a pan-EU design right which, broadly speaking, enables businesses to protect the external design features of a product. To be registered, the design must be new (that is, not identical or materially similar to anything already available to the public), and it must have 'individual character' (that is, make a different overall impression on the ‘informed user’ of the product to anything already available).
In this case, the designs protected by Apple’s RCD are described at a pretty high level. The designs covered a rectangular shape, with evenly rounded corners, thin in profile and having a flat surface, and with a simple and unornamented design.
The test for infringement is: does the Galaxy tablet make a different overall impression on the 'informed user' to the features in Apple’s RCD? The High Court ruled that the tablet did make a different overall impression, and so did not infringe. The Galaxy tablets did not have the same understated and extreme simplicity – as the judge said, they were not as 'cool'.
The Court of Appeal unanimously agreed. The court added that if Apple’s RCD was as wide as Apple suggested, it would foreclose the market for all tablet computers.
Community design rights remain one of the more useful species of IP, and should be considered by anyone for whom product design is important. However, as this case confirms, the right can often be a relatively narrow one. As for Apple v Samsung, we wait with interest for the next instalment…