[author: Emily E. Harris]
"So a jury recently decided that Samsung deliberately copied the rounded corners of the iPhone and punished the company with an award to Apple exceeding $1 billion? How is that even possible?"
I'm repeatedly asked versions of this question by many who feel the decision highlights our broken patent system - a system in which the rounded corners of the iPhone allow Apple to bully others who used that "obvious" design feature.
Yes, it is true that Samsung was found to infringe on Apple's rounded-corner patent, but that is only one part of story; the verdict was based on many factors. Although the headlines latched onto the rounded corners, the jury actually found that Samsung infringed on six patents, infringement of any one of which would have resulted in liability.
In addition to Apple's three design patents (covering the "look" - those rounded corners), there were three utility patents (covering the way devices actually work). These cover the "bounce back" that occurs at the end of a page, the way the phone differentiates between one-finger and two-finger gestures, and "tap to zoom." Although these seem common now, the evidence showed that at the time the technology was created (circa 2007), there wasn't any technology close to Apple's. At that time, Blackberry and Palm dominated the market, and the iPhone's features were unheard of and cutting-edge when incorporated into a mobile phone. And that's why Samsung copied them.
You'll note that I haven't even discussed the rounded-corner patent, which arguably should have been tossed out (along with the two other design patents). Samsung presented strong evidence of pre-iPhone phones with strikingly similar corners, but the jury still found these patents to be infringed. Even if the jury got it wrong there, it is probably a correct outcome. Although $1 billion might be shocking in its size, it is supported by Samsung's intentional copying of the iPhone's patented functionality and Apple's innovations in the utility patents.