Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Apple and Samsung drop all non-U.S. patent suits against each other, keep suing in U.S.

Apple and Samsung have not yet reached an actual and complete settlement, i.e., a worldwide license agreement, but at least they've agreed to a ceasefire in a host of countries. As Yonhapnews and other news agencies report, "Samsung Electronics and Apple have agreed to end patent-related disputes in all countries, except for the U.S.", but there is no license agreement in place. Still, congratulations to both on conserving resources!

This is structurally reminiscent of a recent agreement between Apple and Google/Motorola, though the Apple-Google-Motorola agreement had worldwide scope. But there are also some important differences between the related U.S. lawsuits. Not much had happened between Apple and Motorola yet in the U.S., while there have been three U.S. trials already (in two federal litigations) between Apple and Samsung. Another difference is that Apple's U.S. dispute with Motorola never involved design patents (Apple only asserted the European equivalent of a design patent, a Community design, against a Motorola tablet in Germany). Design patents account for the bulk of the damages award Apple obtained in its first California case against Samsung.

Outside the U.S., the companies had litigation pending against each other in Germany, the UK, France, Italy, the Netherlands, South Korea, Australia, and Japan. Neither party had won a decisive victory against the other. Maybe things could have become tricky for Apple in South Korea at some point, where Samsung had prevailed on a couple of standard-essential patents but an injunction had been stayed pending an appeal. However, Apple's market share in that country is no longer huge.

In Germany, where I went to almost every Apple-Samsung trial relating to technical (not design) patents, it was a complete wash: they asserted seven technical patents each, and all cases were either dismissed (though appealed) or stayed. Apple is the only litigant in the ongoing "smartphone patent wars" to have been unable to so far (one opposition proceeding before the European Patent Office had not yet been resolved) to salvage even the smallest part of any of its patents-in-suit (in Germany, to be clear). Samsung and Motorola defeated each and every Apple patent before the Federal Patent Court of Germany including any amendments Apple had proposed. Those amendments would have narrowed the scope of the patents, but the German patent judges threw out the amended claims as well. With Samsung and Motorola no longer having to defend against Apple's German infringement cases, various patents including slide-to-unlock (which ten European judges found invalid) and photo gallery rubberbanding will be technically alive for some more time, though any attempt by Apple to enforce them in Germany against other defendants would be a long shot because judges would look at the record of the Samsung and Motorola cases and have serious doubt about the validity of those patents.

The U.S. is a significant and lucrative part of the worldwide market for smartphones and tablet computers, but most of the volume is outside the U.S., so if Apple has now recognized that it can't gain leveage over its fiercest rival anywhere else, it will have to come up with something else than the thermonuclear patent war envisioned by Steve Jobs if it wants to stop Android from further marginalizing iOS outside the U.S.

Even in the U.S., Apple's ability to regain market share through patent litigation is very doubtful. Its U.S. patents so far haven't been strong enough either. The "defining moment" that affected my perspective on the strategic relevance of Apple's U.S. patent infringement lawsuits against Android far more than any other was when I found out that a U.S. import ban over the so-called "Steve Jobs patent" had no commercial effect after entering into force last October -- because a workaround had been cleared by the United States International Trade Communication (ITC), and the workaround was technically so good that no consumer appeared to notice any change whatsoever. In June, these companies agreed to withdraw their related cross-appeal.

Apple may believe that it has a few more patents in stock with which it can gain leverage in the U.S., so maybe we'll see a third U.S. Apple v. Samsung lawsuit. But that appears less likely to me than another possibility. It may very well be that at this point Apple just hopes for a somewhat face-saving exit by collecting a significant damages award (or, more likely, obtaining a settlement before it gets there) based on, for the most part, design patents. Even after giving up thermonuclear ambitions, Apple's goal may now be to get a billion-dollar payment, or possibly a one-time payment plus a certain amount of ongoing royalties on U.S. sales, so it can say it has at least covered large parts or all of the costs of its patent war on Android. But I'm not even too optimistic about Apple's prospects of achieving that.

On the occasion of this high-profile ceasefire, it's worth taking a quick look at where all those high-profile patent infringement lawsuits against Android have gone. The answer is: pretty much nowhere. Apple settled with HTC before anything big had happened. It agreed on a ceasefire with Google/Motorola (also before anything of note had happened between the two). It has now limited its litigation with Samsung to the U.S., where the first case is on appeal and now only about money (Apple gave up its quest for an injunction in that first litigation). There's still something going on between Microsoft and Motorola in the U.S. and Germany, but so far Microsoft has not gained decisive leverage over Motorola, after almost four years of litigation. I explained this in my recent post on a contract lawsuit filed by Microsoft against Samsung. If Microsoft prevails on its interpretation of its patent license agreement with Samsung, there won't be any infringement actions between those two companies for a long time; otherwise we might see some.

That leaves only one really important infringement action that is still ongoing, and it's no longer about patents, just about copyright: Oracle v. Google. Google is preparing to appeal Oracle's appellate victory to the Supreme Court.

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