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This weekend, you couldn't look at a media outlet without hearing about Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) big patent win over Samsung. "Apple Gets Decisive Win in Patent Case" was the title of a Wall Street Journal piece. Fortune's online arm wondered, "Will Apple now sue Google?" Fellow Fool Evan Niu called it a "landslide victory for Apple."
Reading the headlines or myriad of stories, you may think that Apple now has some stranglehold on the intellectual property behind smartphones because it won its case against Samsung. You would be right to take some credence in the media's portrayal that the win was huge for Apple, but the details are far more complex than that, and Apple hasn't crushed the competition into oblivion with this one verdict -- far from it. In this case, Apple was protecting the design and feel of its products, not the guts or the way they work. This is an important distinction, something investors need to keep in mind before coming to broad conclusions about Apple or any of its competitors.
What really happened
This particular case was more about the design of Samsung's devices than the inner workings of the device. Apple is heavily protected with what the industry calls design patents, something other tech companies (or other companies in general) don't focus as heavily on, but that was the focus of this case. A design patent is just what it sounds like; it protects the physical design a company's product has. The patents in question are nothing more than simple images of the iPhone and screen shots of the display, essentially saying, "don't make products that look generally like this."
In this case, jurors were given Apple and Samsung devices during deliberations and expected to determine whether they were similar. The legal standard jurors were told to determine was whether the "Samsung design is substantially the same as the overall appearance of the claimed Apple design patent." Language like this does leave room for interpretation by Samsung and a jury, which is why it wasn't a slam-dunk case. The jurors found that the devices were indeed "substantially the same," something that isn't surprising when you compare the iPhone and Samsung's older generation of products side by side.
When you're talking about a physical device, especially one as ubiquitous as the iPhone, these questions are relatively simple to answer in a technical sense. There is subjectivity, of course, but the questions are simple. Does this look like that? Could you confuse the two?
That's probably one of the reasons Apple was happy to let the case go to a jury. They could understand the simple pictures in the design patents and rule whether Samsung had violated them.
Even the utility patents in question were also relatively simple, relating to only three claims (out of more than 100): a "rubber-band effect," pinch to zoom, and double tapping to zoom. This won't be the case for other patent cases, which I'll get to in a minute.
Dumb or dumber?
When reading the verdict and comments from jurors, it seems Apple's win over Samsung has more to do with Samsung's stupidity than Apple's great patent protection. A document that included a grid comparing features and how Samsung could improve them was a main exhibit during the trial. Apple's lawyers sold the document as evidence that Samsung tried to copy the iPhone in certain ways and was probably the jury's justification for finding "willful infringement."
Had Samsung made a product that was slightly more different, the damages could have been less or even nothing at all. And don't think that Samsung will take the $1.05 billion verdict lying down. This court battle has just begun.
Don't think this is the end
Over the weekend, I asked patent attorney Jason Lorfing (who does not represent Apple or Samsung) what the impact of the case would be. He said: "The patent community doesn't tend to put a lot of stock in district court rulings because the case will be appealed to a specialized appeals court, called the Federal Circuit. This court is specialized for patent cases and has a higher overturn rate than other federal cases, so the likelihood the case is overturned upon appeal is relatively high." To give you an idea of the likelihood of a successful appeal, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Circuit modified a jury's verdicts (overturning or modifying damages) about 50% of the time. Outright reversal happened 19% of the time in a one-year span from 2007 to 2008, more than double the rate of other federal courts.
This weekend, fellow Fool Anders Bylund pointed out that the verdict already has holes that Samsung will try to punch through.
The real challenge lies ahead
Apple's win in a case centered on design will affect smartphone and tablet designers as well as operating-system designers, but it won't change the game entirely. Even if the case stands up to appeals, changes in the smartphone and tablet markets will be swift, and many have already taken place.
It is also likely Samsung and others are already under way in making its next round of devices that are "not substantially the same" as Apple's design patents. In fact, I would argue that most of the current models wouldn't have a problem against these design patents.
Apple has set a precedent that it won't allow its products to be copied and is willing to go to great lengths to protect them, so these differences will need to be made clear. But companies deal with this every day.
I also don't think it changes the game for Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android operating system in the long term. The patents in question can be designed around, as most patents can, and the current operating system has addressed many of the issues. Will it help Apple and the Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) /Nokia (NYSE: NOK ) partnership gain some share as others have suggested? I doubt it.
Design patents have the downside of being relatively narrow in what they protect against. Yes, Samsung was found to have infringed on Apple's design patents, but a few tweaks here and a square corner there, and Samsung will be able to get around them. It's what businesses do, it's the game that's played, and it's why there are so many patents and so many lawyers on both sides of this fight. Utility patents, though, are another story entirely.
A war of mutually assured destruction
What this case doesn't decide is how the growing patent war involving Apple, Microsoft, Google, Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) , Nokia, HTC, and a myriad of other technology companies will play out. Most of these cases involve utility patents, which are much more complex for a jury and involve technologies that are protected more by intellectual property than designs generally are.
Each of these companies owns hundreds or thousands of utility patents relating to the operation of their devices, and many patents overlap. The difference between the ruling on a few design patents and the growing war with utility patents is a distinction investors should keep in mind before rushing to conclusions about Apple's IP position or the position of any other tech company.
In my opinion, the case is almost irrelevant. The Samsung Galaxy SIII is now Apple's biggest competition, and it doesn't appear to be "substantially the same" as the iPhone, physically or operationally. In a $220 billion smartphone market, a $1.05 billion verdict is little more than a slap on the wrist, and it does little to change anything other than presenting a few more challenges for designers making smartphones or the next-generation operating system.
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