Saturday, May 19, 2018

Will Homer Simpson sway the Apple v. Samsung design patent damages retrial jury?

It would have been preferable to give the Apple v. Samsung design patent damages re-retrial jury in San Jose (Northern District of California) a chance to render a verdict before the weekend. In that case, jurors might have put an end to this disruption of their lives. But the way things worked out, they're now going to think about what position to take on Monday morning when official deliberations begin. In the meantime, they're not allowed to talk to anyone about the case or to take a look at any media reports (whether some jurors do so anyway is another question, but they're not supposed to).

As in the previous trials in this case, and as I mentioned a few days ago, Apple's lawyers portrayed Samsung as an intentional infringer, an unrepentant copyist, with Samsung being barred from presenting some evidence that could have shed a different kind of light on that question.

The holdings that (i) Samsung infringed those three design patents (a long time ago) and (ii) that those patents are valid are "law of the case" and the re-retrial jury must presume both to be the case. It is worth noting, however, that courts in other jurisdictions looked at international equivalents of those intellectual property rights (and at devices from the same generation of Android-based Samsung products) and reached rather different conclusions. But things are the way they are for the purposes of this U.S. case, so the focus is just on damages, and the single most important question in this regard is what "article of manufacture" a disgorgement of Samsung's profits should be based on: the entire device (which was considered a foregone conclusion in previous trials, but the Supreme Court and, previously, the United States Department of Justice disagreed with Judge Koh, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and Judge Lucy H. Koh) or one or more components?

In that context, the most surprising tweet from the courtroom (thanks to Mike Swift, Joshua Sisco and Stephen Shankland for some excellent coverage!) indicated that Apple's lead counsel, Bill Lee, could live with a $370 million verdict:

Given that Apple's own damages demand is almost three times as high, the above observation suggests more than a crack in the shell. As I followed the trial on Twitter, I felt that Samsung's lawyers and experts drove some very important points home, though Apple also made some good points, considering that Apple's position is a very extreme one in this case. Is Apple now happy with getting a little bit less for those design patents than before? Or is it simply waving a white flag because it's afraid the jury might arrive at a much lower figure? W won't ever know.

If stakeholders could file amicus curiae briefs with this jury, Apple would really be in trouble and even the $370 million "compromise" proposal would be ambitious. Hardly anyone wanted to support Apple's "entire device" position in filings with the Supreme Court. Most of those who supported Apple said they just wanted to ensure that a disgorgement of infringer's profits under 35 U.S.C. § 289 would continue to be available in other cases (such as with respect to running shoes).

The world outside that San Jose courtroom overwhelmingly prefers a component-based damages determination. This InsideSources article on the problems that an excessive damages amount in the Apple v. Samsung case could cause tech and non-tech companies alike is a good example. But jurors won't have the benefit of such information on the wider ramifications of what they're required to decide.

The tech sector at large (with a few exceptions merely proving the rule) is also concerned about patents on screen designs. The D'305 patent covers a screen layout. That one is a software patent styled as a design patent because it wouldn't meet the patentability (including, but not limited to, patent-eligibility) standards for utility (i.e., technical) patents. While I can imagine Samsung saw the most immediate threat in this case in the original "it must be a complete device" standard for the determination of the relevant article of manufacture, it was very unfortunate that Samsung didn't additionally ask the Supreme Court to hold such subject matter ineligible for design patents. Now Samsung's lawyers say that a screen is the proper article of manufacture for a software user interface patent. That would mitigate the damage to Samsung, but it doesn't alleviate my concern, as an app developer, over patents like D'305 in the slightest.

Apple has some of the best lawyers in the world, and they dug up something that might have impressed the jury (this post continues below the YouTube video):

That video shows Homer Simpson with an iPhone, and what makes the iPhone particularly identifiable is the app menu matrix everyone knows. Actually, most non-iPhone devices have such a matrix as well. They still do, despite Apple's lawsuits against Samsung, Motorola, and HTC (the three leading Android device makers earlier this decade, i.e., when Apple's patent assertions against Google's ecosystem began). In other words, this is iconic and hard to protect at the same time. And the reason it's hard to protect is because it's just a very logical screen layout.

Should Apple get many hundreds of millions of dollars, or theoretically even a billion dollars, then Homer Simpson--or, in the real world, Homer's creator, Matt Groening--deserves a commission.

One of the questions that jurors will be asking themselves this weekend is likely whether (again, basing everything on the previous findings of infringement and validity, irrespectively of what courts in other countries concluded) Samsung should face the maximum penalty, a slap on the wrist, or something in between.

For more than one reason, there's no way I could ever have ended up on that jury. If--in a hypothetical alternative reality--I had to make a decision, I wouldn't agree with either party, but I'd sooner award Apple two or three times of what Samsung considers reasonable than half or a third of Apple's demand. The primary reason for this would be that such components are manufactured separately and can be bought as replacement parts--and there are hundreds of thousands of other potentially-patentable elements in a smartphone, not just three design patents.

That's why this is not a question of whether one respects Apple's designs, Apple's investment in design and innovation, or Apple's right to defend the uniqueness of its products. Over the course of almost eight years, this blog has repeatedly stated that Apple couldn't be different and think different if everyone else was allowed to "copy." Even the fact that Apple founder Steve Jobs once said that "good artists copy, great artists steal" and that Apple had "shamelessly" stolen other people's creations doesn't mean too much in this context.

The problem is just that, no matter whether a screen layout covered by a design patent appeared in a Simpsons episode, the kinds of products at issue in this Northern California case contain many technical components--hundreds of thousands of at least potentially patentable concepts--and so many visual designs (for instance, many other screen layouts than just the app matrix) that a damages award over a very few patents just shouldn't be excessive. Otherwise everything else in such a phone would be implicitly devalued, and that would neither be fair not would it be in the interest of consumers who expect an electronic device not only to look good but also to be fully functional.

When it's not about design patents, Apple itself is a proponent of the "smallest salable patent-practicing unit" (SSPPU) rule (damages or royalties should be determined based on the smallest component that is deemed to infringe or practice a patent) as opposed to complete products. I've supported Apple's related thinking in disputes with Google/Motorola, Ericsson, Qualcomm, and... Samsung. After all those years, I'm not going to be inconsistent. That's why I hope the jury will do precisely what Apple advocates when the shoe is on the other foot, and focus on the smallest salable patent-practicing unit(s).

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