Samsung vs Apple: the five year long patent battle shows that industrial design matters

For the first time in over 120 years, a design patent case will be heard by the US supreme court. The hearings of arguments in the Samsung vs Apple case will begin today, and a decision is expected only by the middle of next year. Samsung has deliberately infringed on Apple patents, specifically the rounded corners, the bezel on the edge, and the grid of homescreen icons. The amount that is to be paid to Apple by Samsung is being decided.

The "rounded corners" patent

The "rounded corners" patent D'677

This case has been going on for over five years now, and there is more to the case than Apple patent trolling Samsung over rounded corners. Patent trolls rarely manufacture actual devices, and their revenues are based mostly on the patents they own. There is an ongoing argument over how much the aesthetics of a product contributes to the sales, beyond just the functionality. The more simplistic interpretations also ignore the importance of industrial design, and the rights of these designers. For example, when it comes to automobiles, there are various makes and models based on the same underlying technology. Samsung did imitate iPhones, but the question Samsung wants to ask is how much this imitation actually hurt the sales of iPhones themselves.

The "bevel" patent D'087

The "bevel" patent D'087

The argument boils down to whether Samsung has to pay Apple the entire profits on all the smartphones that the Apple designs were copied in, or only a portion of the profits. A court decision will have wider implications beyond just the amount of compensation awarded to Apple by Samsung. The decision by the Supreme court is focused on this instance of a design patent litigation between Samsung and Apple. However, the entire industry is involved as designers support Apple, whereas Silicon Valley tech giants support Samsung. The argument is about whether the liabilities of patent infringement should be limited to the infringing components, which are technological products in themselves, or the profits on the entire smartphone.

The User Interface patent by Apple

The User Interface patent by Apple

In support of Apple are the best design professionals. Dieter Rams, former Head of Design for Braun, Stefan Hans Sielaff, Director of Design at Bentley Motors, Per Hjuler, Senior Vice President of Lego, Nicolas Ghesquiere, Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton are all among the supporters of Apple in this case. Fashion designers Calvin Klein and Alexander Wang also side with Apple. Google, Facebook, Dell and HP are among the companies supporting Samsung.

Samsung prototyped phones with rounded corners before the Apple iPhone

Samsung prototyped phones with rounded corners before the Apple iPhone

The technology companies argue that the current design patent law, Section 289, is outdated and was drafted without an understanding of modern technological products. Modern devices are complex, made of many components, and are not purchased based only on the design of a few components. Those who invest in an iPhone, may just be buying it for the camera, or the cloud services it offers, or how well it interfaces with outer Apple devices. These customers would have purchased the iPhones even if the iPhone did not have rounded corners, the edge bezels, or the square icons with rounded corners arranged in a grid.

The Samsung phones were only ever prototypes, and had a keyboard

The Samsung phones were only ever prototypes, and had a keyboard

Even if Samsung copied particular components of the iPhone, Samsung should not be made to give up the entire profits on all of its devices that infringed on Apple patents. If such a ruling were to be passed, the tech companies contend, then it would have devastating implications for the sector. It would allow design patent trolls to derail innovation and technological progress. The technology companies hold that Samsung should only pay Apple a portion of the profits. This is to be calculated based on how much the infringing patents contributed to the total profits.

Which Coca Cola bottle would you buy? The first ever Coca Cola bottle on the left, the modern, iconic version on the right.

Which Coca Cola bottle would you buy? The first ever Coca Cola bottle on the left, the timeless, iconic version on the right.

The designers in support of Apple argue that the American economy is founded on embracing industrial design. Examples cited include the iconic Coca Cola bottle. Initially, the cold drink was available in a simple straight bottle that was easy to replicate. Sales improved dramatically after moving to the curved bottle that is now universally recognized as the Coca Cola bottle. Similarly, the sales of General Motors permanently overshadowed those of Ford after GM started an Art and Colours department in 1920.

Samsung phones before the iPhone. Image: Apple.

Samsung phones before the iPhone. Image: Apple.

The industrial design community contends that in the minds of users, the visual aesthetic of a product defines the product, not the components that make it up. Samsung copying the iconic design could mislead consumers over what the device is and what it is capable of. As a case study, Raymond Loewy, known as the "Father of Modern Design", showed how he boosted sales of a duplicating machine by making it less clunky and confusing, to a design that was streamlined and just looked more visually appealing. Historically, better designed products generate more sales for the company based on advertising that contain visuals of the product.

Samsung market share after imitation. Image: Apple.

Samsung market share after imitation. Image: Apple.

Apple contends that Samsung was not competitive in the category, and could turn around sales only because it copied the iconic Apple designs. Samsung claims that the patents themselves do not mention this iconic design of the whole phone. Apple claims that they deserve all the profits from the devices that infringed the patents. Samsung believes that such a ruling would disproportionately affect smaller manufacturers, and that it is unhealthy for the industry. Samsung claims that there was more in the product that drove the sales apart from the copied components, and Apple only deservers the profits from those parts. Samsung argues that design patents could become the weapon of choice to push out competition from the market, if a decision is made in favor of Apple.

Samsung phones after the iPhone. Image: Apple.

Samsung phones after the iPhone. Image: Apple.

Apple is a company known for the design of its products. Jonathan Ive, the Chief Design Officer at Apple follows the ten principles for good design by Dieter Rams. Apple had a lead in the market, and Samsung has every right to take the steps necessary as a competitor, but these steps should be within the limits of what is legal. Samsung copied the iPhone design, and benefited from it financially. After five years, the fight is no longer just between Apple and Samsung.


Published Date: Oct 11, 2016 11:03 am | Updated Date: Oct 11, 2016 11:03 am