Perhaps more than anything, the ongoing courtroom battles between these tech giants display both sides' grizzled determination to avoid admitting any wrongdoing. Neither side wants to give up. However, for those who have long been weary of the ceaseless courtroom tactics, a recent ruling probably nudged this never-ending saga one step closer to its resolution.
A new dead-end for Samsung
Late last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., ruled against Samsung's request to have its patent-infringement case against Apple reheard. Samsung lost the case last May but sought a retrial.
Instead, the case will now be returned to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, where it was originally tried, to have damages assessed.
As part of that court's ruling last year, a three-judge committee ordered Samsung to pay $548 million in damages: a substantial figure, but well below the $1 billion Apple reportedly sought from the South Korean tech giant.
Further complicating the situation, a recent move by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office invalidated what some media outlets claim is a crucial patent concerning the face of the iPhone 3G. Without delving too deep into legal jargon, the U.S. PTO's ruling appears to curb the protected life of Apple's iPhone 3G design patent to a later time interval than Apple originally sought.
Apple requested what's called a "priority" protection date for the patent, a tactic that would expand the effective date of the patent from its filing date in November 2008 back to January 2007. This time gap appears critical to Apple's legal argument, because smartphone design generally evolved to the point where many feel that Apple's ability to claim the design as its own became effectively null in the time between Apple's "priority" protection date and the patent's actual filing date.
At a high level, Apple's patent for at least some of its case against Samsung appears no longer recognizable from a legal perspective. So in a sense, Apple recently saw its case against Samsung in the U.S. both improve and deteriorate in the span of several days. That's emblematic of the broader storyline here.
How much is too much?
At least from a shareholder's perspective, I see value in Apple's defending intellectual property that it believes it created. However, the degree to which Apple and Samsung appear determined to fight each patent battle makes me question what purpose these tactics serve.
Recall that the Apple-Samsung patent-litigation saga extends far beyond this case in the United States. Apple first sued Samsung on claims of patent infringement in the spring of 2011. Samsung then leveraged its own massive patent portfolio to sue Apple in return. Over the next year, the number of legal clashes between Apple and Samsung expanded to over 50 suits globally. But what has it all accomplished for either company or its investors?
Protecting intellectual property certainly matters. However, judging by the effect these suits have had on commercial activity in the smartphone market, it seems fair to say that the original intent of these lawsuits has mutated into a distracting and expensive global imbroglio that has produced little tangible effect in the actual marketplace.
Yet it seems unlikely that either Apple or Samsung will yield in this first-to-blink contest. Both companies have scored victories in their patent litigation efforts, but in this zero-sum scenario, one company's loss is the other's win. Nevertheless, while Apple and Samsung may not throw in the towel anytime soon, this recent ruling could push the two tech giants one step closer to ending this largely useless and costly chapter in their otherwise storied corporate histories.