Friday, December 7, 2012

German court stays Samsung lawsuit against Apple over smiley input method patent

I just attended an announcement at the Mannheim Regional Court. Judge Andreas Voss ("Voß" in German) ordered a stay of a Samsung lawsuit against Apple over doubts concerning the validity of a patent covering a particular method for entering smileys on a mobile phone. A nullity (invalidation) action against that patent is pending at the Federal Patent Court, and the Mannheim court won't let Samsung enforce this questionable patent unless its validity is affirmed at the end of the nullity proceedings.

In October I reported on the related trial, at which Judge Voss was more than skeptical of the economic relevance of this particular part of the wider dispute. Even if Samsung had won an injunction today, or if it ended up winning one much later, it would merely be a PR stunt enabling Samsung to claim that Apple, too, has been found to infringe a non-standard-essential Samsung patent. Apple could easily work around this patent without any loss of German sales. The input method claimed by the patent is not really needed by German users, who would still be able to enter smileys by typing the usual sequences of characters such as ":-)" and don't really need an on-screen choice of smileys. The patented method makes a lot more sense in Asia, where it takes far more than three keystrokes to enter a smiley.

The court concluded that this patent is "actually very simple and not as complicated as the parties suggested, respectively, in their discussion of infringement and validity". For example, Samsung had argued that its patent specifically covers the ability of selecting more than one smiley in a row. Based on a broad claim construction, which presumably covers the basic idea of having an on-screen selection of smiley icons, the court held that a Japanese prior art reference cited by Apple is highly likely to result in the invalidation of this patent for anticipation (lack of novelty at time of filing).

German courts order stays of patent infringement actions only if their claim construction results in some finding of infringement. Nullity proceedings are much slower than infringement lawsuits in places like Mannheim, where infringement rulings frequently come down within 10 months of the filing of a complaint. In this particular case, I doubt that the Federal Patent Court will adjudge the validity of Samsung's smiley input patent before 2014, and its ruling can then be appealed to the Federal Court of Justice. Apple and Samsung will most likely settle their dispute prior to a final judgment on this patent. Compared to U.S courts, some Geman courts are rocket dockets -- but only as long as an infringement case is not stayed pending a parallel invalidation proceeding.

None of the first four German Samsung v. Apple actions has succeeded. The first three of them were dismissed because Apple was cleared of infringement (Samsung is appealing those decisions), and the fourth one got stayed. Rulings on three other Samsung v. Apple actions (two of the patents-in-suit have been declared essential to wireless standards) will come down early next year.

Apple hasn't fared better in Germany against Samsung with respect to technical patents and utility models (design rights are a different matter). The first half-dozen Apple lawsuits against Samsung were dismissed or stayed.

In a couple of hours Judge Voss will preside over an Apple v. Samsung trial relating to the rubber-banding patent. I don't know if Apple currently has any other German actions pending against Samsung (apart from appeals), but I recently discovered four German patent assertions against HTC that weren't previously known, and some or all of those patents-in-suit (three of which were previously asserted against Nokia) might also be being asserted against Samsung in this country, where new filings are not discoverable prior to a (generally public) hearing.

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