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Apple gives Samsung some work-around options for its iPhone and iPad design patents

Apple gives Samsung some work-around options for its iPhone and iPad design patents

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apple samsung galaxy tab ipad
apple samsung galaxy tab ipad

Redacted public versions of the legal briefs tied to Apple's July request for a ban on Samsung's products began to trickle in over the last few days. While we eagerly await the judge's decision on an injunction, let's take a look at some of the more interesting tidbits in those briefs. It should be no surprise that Apple and Samsung have spilled a lot of ink defining what Apple's US design patents on the iPhone and iPad cover. What might surprise you, however, is that a fair amount of the analysis over what the patents don't cover — essentially work-arounds to the patents — has come from Apple. In litigation, a patent owner has to specifically define, and thus somewhat limit, what its design patent covers, and often has to use those definitions to rebut arguments from the alleged infringer. 

One of Samsung's arguments in its defense against the injunction is that Apple is trying to improperly cover various functional (utilitarian) elements required in any modern smartphone or tablet device. Samsung is essentially saying that it had no other realistic design options available when it created devices like the Galaxy S, Infuse and Galaxy Tab 10.1. Apple obviously disagrees: it argues that Samsung had many other non-infringing design alternatives at its disposal and didn't need to copy the aesthetic features of the iPhone and iPad devices. To make that argument stick Apple had no choice but to identify exactly what those alternatives were.

On the smartphone side of things, the following is a list of some of the alternative design options Apple felt Samsung should have looked into further:

  • Front surface that isn't black.
  • Overall shape that isn't rectangular, or doesn't have rounded corners.
  • Display screens that aren't centered on the front face and have substantial lateral borders.
  • Non-horizontal speaker slots.
  • Front surfaces with substantial adornment.
  • No front bezel at all.

As for tablets, Apple identified a similar list of alternative designs available to Samsung:

  • Overall shape that isn't rectangular, or doesn't have rounded corners.
  • Thick frames rather than a thin rim around the front surface.
  • Front surface that isn't entirely flat.
  • Profiles that aren't thin.
  • Cluttered appearance.

This isn't an exhaustive list of the alternative designs offered up by Apple, but it's a summary of the most interesting ones. And if they're interesting to us, imagine what Samsung was thinking when it received this list a few months back. While a single feature change might not be enough to escape Apple's scrutiny, it's clear Samsung was gifted at least some options to work with — excluding perhaps Apple's suggestion that Samsung could have adopted a "cluttered appearance" for its devices. 

Sure enough, Samsung came out with the Galaxy Tab 10.1N in Germany a couple of weeks ago, and expressly stated its new tablet design was modified "to reflect Apple's claims." The new look includes thicker vertical frame sections (in landscape orientation) that wrap around to slightly intrude on the front face, and a vertical speaker slot placed in each of those new frame sections. Unfortunately for Samsung, Apple apparently doesn't think those changes were enough — asking a German court to ban the new 10.1N version based on a European design registration that's a counterpart to the US design patent. It will be interesting to see exactly where the courts draw the line on what defines an acceptable work-around for these particular design rights. We may know soon enough.