Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Google, Facebook, HP, others warn a company could lose its entire profits due to a single patented icon

Yesterday Apple responded to Samsung's petition for a full-court review of an appeals court ruling upholding hundreds of millions of dollars in design patent damages (this post continues below the document):

15-07-20 Apple Response to Motion for Rehearing by Florian Mueller

I have no problem with what Apple's filing says, at least none that I would have been able to identify without a lot of research, but I do have a huge problem with what it does not say. For a truly great company like Apple the objective should not merely be to defend a favorable ruling but also to advocate good interpretations of the law and good policies. Regrettably, Apple's filing doesn't even try to justify why anyone--potentially even including Apple, not in the Samsung case but in whatever future context--should be liable for the totality of their profits for infringing only a single design patent with a product that could theoretically infringe multiple design patents (thus resulting in multiple disgorgements of entire profits, which would at some point ruin everyone, even Apple), not to mention thousands of technical patents, copyrights, trade secrets, etc.

Apple argues that this smartphone case has different characteristics than Samsung's hypothetical example of a disgorgement of total profits could affect the manufacturer of a car only because of a cupholder infringing a design patent. According to Apple, the design patents at issue cover the "iconic" look of the iPhone. But Apple's legal argument is that there is no room in the statute for any kind of apportionment, and on that basis, the cupholder example would apply. Of course, it would still be up to a jury to decide, but based on Apple's proposed and supported interpretation of the law, the judge presiding over a cupholder design patent trial wouldn't have a choice but to instruct the jury that a total, unapportioned disgorgement of profits is possible under the law.

Apple can do better than that. In the standard-essential patents context, Apple consistently advocates the "smallest saleable unit" approach. Sure, SEPs are utility (technical) patents and design patents fall under a special rule. Therefore, Apple is not inconsistent on the law, but it is inconsistent in terms of the policies it promotes.

A request for a rehearing is a long shot, generally speaking and even more so after a unanimous panel opinion. That's why Apple's opposition to Samsung's petition is more likely than not to succeed, and Apple's lawyers just focused on what they believe will dissuade the Federal Circuit from taking another look at this matter. For most companies in the world, a few hundred million dollars in design patent damages would be a huge opportunity. But Apple could afford to take a more strategic perspective. It wants design patents to be strong and that makes sense. However, I'm convinced that all companies with a focus on making products (as opposed to patent enforcement) should be able to agree that the possibility of multiple disgorgements of entire infringer's profits is absurd and dangerous.

I'm sure there's consensus across the industry on this, but at this procedural stage it's probably much harder for Samsung to drum up support in the form of amicus curiae briefs than it would be in the event that the petition is granted or, especially, if it brought a petition for writ of certiorari (request for Supreme Court review). Still, several advocacy groups as well as a number of high-profile industry players, notably including not only Google (a Samsung partner) but also Facebook, HP and eBay (among others), have chimed in. Here's the brief that the group including (among others) Google, Facebook and HP filed (this post continues below the document):

15-07-01 Dell HP Google Facebook EBay Et Al. Brief by Florian Mueller

The greatest strength of that amicus brief is that it provides examples that, under Judge Koh's and the Federal Circuit panel's reasoning, would all result in a potential disgorgement of unapportioned infringer's profits. It mentions the numerous components in a "smart television" set, and notes that the aspects that could be covered by design patents include "even the shape of a single icon within an application." This example comes up again in connection with "[s]oftware products and online platforms":

"A design patent may cover the appearance of a single feature of a graphical user interface, such as the shape of an icon. That feature [...] may appear only during a particular use of the product, on one screen display among hundreds, but the panel's decision could allow the owner of the design patent to receive all profits generated by the product or platform, even if the infringing element was largely insignificant to the user and it was the thousands of other features [...] that drove the demand generating those profits."

The largest "online platforms" are Google and Facebook, and just imagine how crazy it would be if, for example, a single icon in a submenu of the Facebook settings was covered by a design patent and someone then collected the totality of Facebook's profits because of a jury being told by a judge that this was allowed under the law.

I'm more on the conservative side and that's why I don't blame Apple for arguing that courts should interpret the law as it stands and not legislate from the bench based on a prediction of what lawmakers would decide if they looked at an issue again. Nor would I (or did I) blame the Federal Circuit panel for having said the same. But the respect in which I disagree with Apple and the panel is that when a rigid interpretation of a law is so clearly ridiculous under today's circumstances, the courts should at least make an effort to find ways to interpret it reasonably. CCIA, an industry group whose members include Samsung and several of its amici, had made one proposal for how to thread the needle, and the panel opinion had not even addressed it, at least not specifically. CCIA has also filed an amicus brief and I still believe this is worthy of consideration, be it by the Federal Circuit or the Supreme Court.

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