On August 24th, a nine-person jury in California awarded Apple Inc. (maker of the iPhone and iPad product lines) over $1 billion in damages, holding that Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (creator of the Galaxy S and Galaxy Tab lines) had willfully infringed six Apple patents.  Although this huge award is being appealed, there have already been significant effects for consumers, and depending on the appeal outcome, for the field of intellectual property law.
Apple claimed that Samsung violated seven patents.  The jury held that Samsung did in fact infringe six of these patents (three utility, three design).  The technical details are too complex for a short blog; briefly, utility patents cover the functionality of a product, while design patents cover the ornamental design of a functional item.
The jury found that Samsung had infringed utility patents such as the “pinch and zoom” capability utilized on many smartphones, and also the “hold and drag” feature to move icons around the screen.  In addition, Samsung violated design patents such as the rectangular, rounded-edge look found on the iPhone.  Samsung’s counterclaim and defense (in part, that Apple itself copied these features from previous products) were denied.
There are many interesting aspects of this lawsuit.  The jury found that Samsung “willfully” violated these patents, thus increasing the damages awarded.  There is a sentiment among industry experts that Apple’s true enemy is Google Inc., creator of the eponymous search engine and more relevantly, the competing Android operating system.  If Apple’s victory is upheld, Google may need to completely redesign Android, to avoid any similarity to Apple’s iOS (operating system).  This decision also seems to unreasonably expand the definition of a “design patent,” which has typically only been granted when the design and look of an item were inseparable from the functionality of that item.  Arguably, under this decision, perhaps a “sleek motorcycle” or “race-looking car” could be patentable.  Lastly, this lawsuit was originally filed in April, 2011, and concerned several now-outdated products, thus demonstrating the divergent speeds in which technology and the law operate.  On August 31st, a week after this decision, Apple filed a new lawsuit to cover current products.
If this decision is upheld, consumers will almost certainly be harmed.  Fewer options and choices will be available in the marketplace, and prices will rise (in part, because firms will seek production licenses from each other).  Samsung’s Galaxy Tab has been banned from sale in the US since June of this year, pending the outcome of this trial.  The next few months should be extremely interesting.