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Apple appeal win could force changes to four-year-old Samsung phones

Apple has won an appeal against Samsung in a patent issue that could lead to the Korean smartphone giant being forced to make changes to its phones. But if that happens, it won't be right away — and it probably won't be a huge deal for Samsung either.

An injunction still has to be issued by a lower court

The court ruling concerns Apple patents for slide-to-unlock, autocorrect, and automatically adding links to text like phone numbers. After a trial last year, Samsung was found to infringe on these three patents, and Apple filed for an injunction to stop it from using them. The injunction was denied on the grounds that Apple hadn't proven that it would suffer "irreparable harm," but now a federal appeals court has overturned that decision. It'll be up to the earlier court to decide again on whether an injunction is appropriate.

It's possible that the case won't head back to the lower court right away, however. This is an important issue, so Samsung may request that the appeals court hear it again in front of all of the Federal Circuit judges, rather than just the three-judge panel that came to this decision. The court would have to agree to that, of course, but it may be of interest given the major software patent issues at play.

What the judges are deciding here sets precedent for when an injunction can be issued stopping the sale of a complex piece of technology, like a smartphone, that has patent-infringing features but is not, on the whole, a stolen product. The appeals court is now, essentially, saying that it's easier to get an injunction in a case like this than the lower court understood it to be. Not so easy, but not impossible, either, which is what the appeals court saw the earlier reading as making it. "If an injunction were not to issue in this case, such a decision would virtually foreclose the possibility of injunctive relief in any multifaceted, multifunction technology," the court writes.

Even then, the court seems to be interested in avoiding a broad injunction that would fully stop the sale of infringing devices. Apple hasn't asked that the court bar the sale of Samsung phones, just that it prevent Samsung from using features that infringe its three patents. Apple has even proposed a 30-day waiting period before the injunction set in, which Samsung has already said would be a long enough time for it to design around the patents at issue. This wouldn't significantly affect Samsung's current business, either: the phones at issue here include, among others, the Galaxy S2, the Galaxy Nexus, and the Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch — devices from 2011. The newest phone in the trial is the Galaxy S3.

Once — or should — this issue end up back in district court, the issue of whether an injunction is appropriate under this new reading still has to be decided. That said, the court basically states that the injunction must be granted, so Apple's odds look good for the moment.

Matt Macari contributed to this report.