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Apple versus Samsung

Lawsuit raises questions as to what kind of advances should be protected by patents

A California jury has recently ruled for Apple against Samsung in the lawsuit between them for violation of patents. The jury decided that Samsung copied as many as seven patented forms of software and two of design, for which it must compensate Apple with some 800 million euros. The suit is pending a new verdict, expected in December, in which it will be decided whether Samsung must withdraw eight of its cellphone models from the US market, as Apple is demanding, as well as fixing the definitive sum of damages to be paid.

Global leadership in the cellphone market is at stake here, as well as questions as to what is to be considered an innovation, and how it must be protected. This is not so clear: two weeks after the California ruling, a judge in Japan disallowed Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung for dishonest use of its patents.

In the California trial it was established that Samsung’s cellphones changed radically after the appearance of the iPhone. Tactile screens already existed, but not an operating system like the one that Apple designed for its smartphones. This system was configured by means of a set of software programs and icons that Apple had protected by patent. Samsung then launched the Galaxy model with a very similar system called Android, developed by Google, which the late Steve Jobs always considered to be a copy.

Decreased incentives

Arising from this lawsuit is the question of whether it ought to be possible to protect via a 20-year patent a mere line of code such as that which, for example, enables an image to be moved by sliding a finger over the screen. In Europe, unlike the United States, software patents are not recognized, though “innovations implemented in computers” are. But, if neither software nor design is protected, what will be considered an innovation in the digital world? Without protection, innovation will lack incentive, and it may be that the market will prefer the strategy of the copier to that of the innovator.

Five years have gone by since the revolutionary iPhone made its first appearance, and the fifth version is already on the market. In this time the Galaxy model has not only enabled Samsung to surpass Apple but also to oust Nokia as world leader. In the last quarter alone Samsung sold 50 million cellphones, twice as many as Apple. The speed with which technology evolves threatens to burst the seams of the patent system, and is so dizzying that the time taken in even the quickest court case may be too long for justice to be done.

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