Short cuts 57
by Paul Stephens
Paul Stephens takes a sideways look at the world of IT.
HardCopy Issue: 57 | Published: September 1, 2012
Apple’s home run
In our last issue we reported on the San Francisco-based Trial of the Century between Oracle and Google over some allegedly purloined Java APIs. Oracle lost that one, but since it was an all-Californian affair it could always have gone either way. This issue’s Trial of the Century was different though, as home team Apple wisely picked a courtroom just ten miles from its Cupertino HQ to take on foreign interlopers Samsung, purveyors of smartphones and tablets that look a bit like Apple’s but don’t cost as much. Apple were claiming, as they tend to do, that their innovations had been shamelessly ripped off, which seemed just a bit rich since the products they were allegedly ripped from included the iPhone, an amalgam of mp3 player, mobile phone and tablet computer, none of which Apple invented. It turned out, however, that the company was focusing on finer details, including rounded corners and the bounce-back scrolling effect. To the layperson this might have looked like splitting hairs, but to Apple they were Very Serious Matters Indeed. The jury of Silicon Valley locals agreed, awarding Apple a whopping $1.05 billion handout (sorry, damages). At the same time they decided that Samsung’s counter-claims, including infringement of a patent for playing music in the background, were entirely without merit (unlike the corners business), and awarded the pesky Koreans $0.00. Had the awards been in roubles and the court in downtown Vladivostok it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the headlines in the Western press, and to their credit much of the Western press did comment on the peculiarly all-American nature of the trial’s outcome. They also noted the contrast with similar actions in Samsung’s backyard, Seoul (where the judge awarded each side a few thousand dollars, banned some token products by both companies and told them to stop being daft) and the UK, where the judge effectively told Apple to stop patent-trolling and for good measure ordered it to place a notice on its Web site admitting that Samsung hadn’t copied the iPad. Apple is, of course, no stranger to the principle of cross-industry fertilisation, as a glance at iOS 5’s pull-down notifications screen (aka ‘the feature originally known as Android 1.0’s pull-down notifications screen’) demonstrates. It remains to be seen whether its (and America’s) reputation can survive the spectacle of the world’s richest company using armies of lawyers (and obliging juries) to crush firms who expect the fertilisation to work both ways, especially when the money to pay the lawyers has come from fat profit margins on products assembled by cheap labour in the same region of the world as the firms they’re trying to crush. Either way, the madness seems, sadly, to be far from over, with Apple likely to find Google’s recently-acquired patent-trolling machine (Motorola) waiting for it on the courthouse steps in the not too distant future. If you’re a Californian patent lawyer, things just keep getting better.
Short Cuts fears that home-turf lawsuits may be taking off as others spot Apple’s easy route to justice. Here’s a roundup of recent cases.
• Bavarian jury declares UK beerfest a “gross violation” of Bavarian patents. A jury in Munich, Germany, found that the Wolverhampton and Dudley All You Can Eat October Beer and Sausage Festival (advance booking advised) was a “gross und deliberate” violation of patents granted by King Ludwig the Bavarian in 1338 for “a device to make men morbidly obese by the ingestion of high-fat processed meat products and high-carbohydrate alcoholic beverages.” Damages of €100 billion were awarded, plus a lifetime ban from the Pan-European Sausage-Swallowing Grand Prix. • Swedish jury tells Danes “Hands off our Miserable ‘Tec shows”. A jury in Stockholm took just 46 minutes (excluding commercials) to decide that Danish cop show The Killing violated Swedish series Wallander’s patent for “a device to combine a miserable detective, slow plots and dark lighting in a format that will sell to middle-aged BBC4 viewers hankering after the 1970s.” The judge awarded damages of 500 billion kr, warning its producers “not to even think about” selling it to UK Gold. • Ford patents windscreen, hits Nissan with $900 billion lawsuit. A jury at the specially newly built Federal Courthouse for Dealing With Foreigners in Dearborn, Michigan, found that Nissan Corporation of Yokohama, Outside the USA, had “flagrantly” violated Ford’s patent (granted the previous week) for “a device facilitating the visible display of ‘I’m backing Mitt’ stickers while simultaneously preventing wind, mosquitoes and discarded burger cartons from the sedan in front from impacting on front seat occupants.” Nissan was ordered to remove windscreens from all current models and to fit square wheels, in anticipation of next week’s patent action by General Motors.
• Microsoft patents the rectangle, hits Nokia with $800 billion form-factor action. A Seattle jury found unanimously that the non-rounded corners on Nokia’s Lumia 800 smartphone “wilfully and geometrically” violated the Seattle company’s patent for “a device which achieves the effect of being square or oblong as opposed to round or oval, and definitely not irregular with squiggly bits”, as used in the interface formerly known as Metro until Microsoft got a letter from some lawyers in Germany. “Sure, we know that Nokia are actually our partners”, said a Microsoft spokesperson, “but it was our patriotic duty to sue, and our lawyers said that if we didn’t get in first they would sue us for violating their patent on a brand image that looks tired and 20th century however much we update the interface. We had no choice.”