Shots fired in smartphone patent wars
Pedestrians walk past a logo of Samsung Electronics at its main building in Seoul on July 29, 2011.
Samsung has delayed the launch of its new smartphone, slated for tomorrow, saying that with the world still mourning Steve Jobs, the timing seemed wrong. It's a softer tone than we've been seeing between the companies. Last week, Samsung sued to block sales of the new iPhone in France and Italy.
Samsung's suit didn't exactly come out of nowhere. It could be seen as a response to the legal action taken by Apple against Samsung, seeking a blockade of sales of the Samsung Galaxy Tab tablet computer in Europe.
Indeed, Apple has been very litigious as of late, going after handset makers HTC and Motorola as well, complaining that some functions of those companies' Android-based smartphones violate patents owned by Apple and used on the iPhones. Google, Amazon, Microsoft and other big name tech firms are similarly fighting numerous legal battles.
This is all happening in a market -- personal electronics -- that is exploding lately. Everyone wants to get as much of the pie as they can. Granted, there have been lawsuits among tech companies for years but those matters have been resolved in conference rooms or courts. Apple, on the other hand, actually prevented Samsung's products from being sold.
"And that's new," says Doug Lichtman from U.C.L.A. Law School. "Usually, when we see a big fight, it's a lot of lawyers yelling. But everyone knows ultimately they're going to make a financial deal and be done. Apple has crossed the line by changing the behavior on the ground. That's got everyone scared. That's got Google scared, Google's partners like HTC scared. All of a sudden everyone says if you do that to me I'll do this to you and away we go into litigation."
Lichtman thinks this will settle down once Apple gets what it wants. "I think they want some money," he says. "Just like Microsoft gets money every time an Android phone gets made. Apple wants to be in that sentence. But more importantly, Apple pushed this because they want Samsung, HTC, Motorola to differentiate themselves a little bit. So right now, all those companies are putting out me-too products. If you look at the Samsung Galaxy tab, it looks a lot like my iPad. The HTC Droid Incredible looks so much like the iPhone, I think Apple wants to say look guys, we will go to war unless you pay us something and make products that look different."
Which is easier said than done. Any new smartphone may have up to 250,000 patents baked into it. Any one of them could lead to litigation so making something wholly new is quite a feat.
Colleen V. Chien is an assistant professor at Santa Clara University Law School. She says, "Patents can be issued over ideas that seem to be pretty basic. Is the patent office doing a good job of filtering out the inventions that come before it that are the good ones that deserve patents and not issuing patents on others? I think the sentiment that the patent community has felt and members of the public as well is that you have way too many patents over ideas that are basic or already existed."
For now, expect more threats, more lawsuits. And, says Chien, you and I may notice that in our bills: "It's costly to fight and you have to pay for lawyers and the lawsuits, and not only that but coming up with patents itself and paying for patenting and acquiring other companies that might have patents you find useful. I mean, those are real dollars we're talking about."
Also in today's program, technology has finally solved the problem of how to play with your cat while you're at work.