How The Apple-Samsung Lawsuit Could Hurt Consumers

You've seen the headlines: Monday marked the beginning of the big, billions-at-stake legal showdown between Apple and Samsung.

There have been plenty of sweeping declarations about how this could affect the competitive landscape in the tech industry. The court's decision could "provide the basis for negotiating the terms and cost of licensing and cross-licensing of patents -- or for keeping certain patented features exclusive to one company," declared The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal notes that a win for Apple create problems for "other Google partners around the world," while a win for Samsung could help Android keep its mojo.

But while techies and law geeks ponder, should you, average iPhone or Android owner, give a damn? Yes, you should. Because the fate of your favorite smartphone or tablet could hinge on what 10 jurors and one judge decide in San Jose, Calif. And unfortunately, whether Apple or Samsung wins (or they settle), it's consumers who are most likely to lose. Let's parse out what this case means in normalese (for U.S. customers at least, since Apple-Samsung litigation has also spread to some 10 countries worldwide).

First, what is this lawsuit about?

Let's be clear here: we're talking lawsuits. Apple and Samsung are entangled in two of them, one starting today and another set to start next year. They deal with two types of patents, or the rights to an invention that a government grants its inventor: so-called "utility patents" and "design patents." Utility patents govern the features a phone or tablet can have; design patents cover how they look.

In the current trial, Apple is essentially suing Samsung for copying the iPhone and iPad when it made Galaxy S, Galaxy S II, and Tab 10.1, along with 22 other products, according to The Verge’s explainer of the trial. The second trial will involve Samsung devices released a bit later: the Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy S III.

Why two trials? “It’s a symptom of the speed at which the justice system moves compared to the technology,” explains Brian Love, law professor at Santa Clara University. Notice that it is older models at issue in the first case.

As a counterpunch, Samsung claims Apple violated some of its utility patents when it made iPhones and iPads. In addition, Samsung wants more money for the use of patents necessary for giving a phone 3G capabilities.

So why should I care about these patents?

Well first, let’s look at the utility patents Apple is claiming Samsung stole. According to Wired, there are three of them, which cover nifty features like slide-to-unlock, pitch-to-zoom, tap-to-zoom and twist-to-rotate (notice a theme?), as well as scroll and "rubberbanding," or that little bounce an app does when you scroll too far.

These features could be exclusively Apple's if Apple wins -- even if, some would argue, they seem essential to the smartphone experience.

"Certainly everyone uses scroll," Deborah Sweeney, intellectual property lawyer and CEO of MyCorporation Business Services, told The Huffington Post. "Samsung might argue, 'This is a useful feature, something to which you can't own a patent.'"

So what does this mean for my Samsung phone?

Well, it won't be taken away or anything. But a ruling against Samsung might mean it will discontinue some older product lines found to violate Apple’s patents. Which, given the pace of change in the tech industry, it is probably going to do anyway: “For some of these products, [Samsung] might be ready to let them die,” explained Love, the Santa Clara professor.

But it's not only potentially fewer choices in the electronics aisle that will hurt consumers. If it loses, Samsung may be in the position where it can’t incorporate certain "Apple" features into future phones or tablets -- without pouring resources into ways to reinvent, or “design around,” those features so that it doesn't violate a patent. Already, Android makers have revamped the way phones are unlocked, for example. These feats of redundant engineering, of course, could cost money that might otherwise go into developing new products.

And what about the design patents?

Citing four other patents, Apple says Samsung copied the iPhone’s and iPad’s design with some of its phones and tablets. As far as electronics go, Apple is claiming rights to some simple geometry (a rectangular shape) and color (black) in electronics design. If all this sounds highly subjective, that’s because it is.

“As silly as it might sound, whether Samsung can sell tablets that are rectangular with rounded edges and are thin is at issue here,” Love said. He described a sort of litmus test to gauge whether the designs of two products are sufficiently different: If you held up each across a room, would you be able to tell them apart?

If Samsung is found to infringe on the design patents, it could be back to the drawing board for the designs of its phones and tablets. But only superficial changes would have to be made. “With the design patent, you only have to make a trivial change,” Love said. Again, though, it’s a potential resource suck for the company, using up money it otherwise might use to design new products.

And what about Samsung’s countersuit?

The countersuit, unsurprisingly, isn’t great for consumers either. Samsung wants 2.4 percent of the full price of every iPhone sold as a royalty for its 3G technology, or around $15.50. Apple wants to pay only $0.0049 per phone. If Samsung wins that claim, every iPhone becomes slightly more expensive for Apple to sell because of the royalty Samsung is owed. To whom do you think the company will pass on those costs?

Samsung has its own utility-patent issues with Apple. The Korean company claims rights to things like “emailing photos from a camera phone, multitasking with music playing in the background, and switching between a live camera shot and a photo gallery,” according to The Verge. If Samsung wins, Apple will have to design around these Samaung-owned features.

So it's mostly consumers that are hurt when companies fight in the courtroom, rather than the marketplace?

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Consumers can get hurt two ways: fewer choices and higher prices. We’re already feeling the effects: In June, the Tab 10.1 was banned in the U.S., pending the outcome of this case. It also means that a future iPhone may not be allowed to do something as simple as play music while you text. Or a Samsung tablet that can’t be too rectangular or black, because that’s too Apple-esque.

“Each of these companies is spending millions of dollars it could otherwise invest in making its products better,” Love said. “The sheer fact that this case is happening is bad for consumers.”

Of course, there is a point to patent law. “As a consumer, you want to believe in patents to encourage innovation,” Sweeney, the IP lawyer, said. This is true. But the Apple-Samsung lawsuits raise the question of whether some of the features patented here (a black rectangular design, scrolling) are so basic and intuitive that they ought not be claimed as the exclusive intellectual property of one firm.

As even the most reluctant Apple or Android fan is likely to admit, the rival firm should be allowed to compete.

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