Blog: The Apple vs Samsung Saga

Article By : Rick Merritt

Rick Merritt figures that the court ruling awarding Apple $539 million of Samsung money is a starting point in how patents are valued

Everyone knows that innovation is today’s gold, but no one knows how to put a price tag on a specific innovation. The good news is that we seem to be making slow progress bringing clarity to the complex and often opaque patent business.

Reuters reported that a San Jose jury decided this week that Samsung owes Apple $539 million for copying aspects of the look and feel of the iPhone. It was the second trail in a case that started seven years ago, when Apple first filed its suit, and it isn’t over yet.

The latest decision cut nearly in half the $1.049 billion that another San Jose jury awarded Apple in 2012. Apple sought as much as $2.71 billion for a combination of design and utility patents, mainly on the appearance and ease of use of its landmark handset.

Samsung appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court, which issued a limited decision in December 2016. Infringers do not necessarily have to pay total profits on the full product sold to end users, said SCOTUS, but it gave no clarity on how to determine what portion of a product that a patent infringes.

If Samsung decides to appeal the latest ruling, we may get at least another example of how to tease out infringement damages in a product as notoriously complex as a smartphone. It’s a fascinating question given that companies such as Samsung do the complex and costly work of making much of the underlying electronics of a handset, yet Apple’s software innovations defining the handheld computer are clearly compelling.

Apple’s separate patent dispute with Qualcomm has already led to some progress. Qualcomm has made its patent-licensing policies more transparent as a result of the dispute — even though it has not even gone to court yet.

It will take many more hours in and out of courtrooms before we have a patent system that is transparent and fairly values the work of engineers and other innovators. For example, the 2012 Apple case generated 1,900 pages of legal filings. It required jurors to answer 33 highly specific and complex multi-part questions on a 20-page verdict form while following 84 instructions from the judge.

An electrical engineer acted as the foreman, helping to navigate a fairly non-technical jury through some of the thorny issues. Personally, I found a 132-page Samsung report comparing its handsets to the iPhone one of Apple’s most compelling exhibits.

On many days, the case dragged through dull procedures and delays, but it also provided a fascinating look into two of the tech world’s most secretive and successful companies. Among the highlights, we heard from Apple executives such as Phil Schiller, read through a few of Steve Jobs’s emails, got a glimpse into the iPhone design process, and watched some courtroom fireworks.

It was quite a show and quite a process. The latest jury case shows that we are taking small steps forward, but we still have a long way to go to perfect this thing that we call the patent system.

— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times

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