Apple's legal battle with Samsung: it is not about the money
by Keiran Goddard
More broadly, this type of intellectual property case suggests that the nature of the public sphere is shifting to include style and design aesthetic – writes Keiran Goddard
There are not many companies in the world that can take on a billion dollar enterprise like Samsung and still be thought of as the Goliath of the piece. For Apple, however, normal rules cease to apply. The ongoing legal dispute with Samsung over perceived patent infringement has been gathering steam this week as Apple looks to follow up their $1.05bn settlement win with an attempt to get eight Samsung products enjoined in American territories.
Considering the fact that the original ruling declared upwards of 20 Samsung products in breach, you might be forgiven for thinking that Apple were in some ways acting rather leniently toward their competitor. You would be mistaken. Leveraging the legal and media momentum of the initial ruling in order to remove Samsung's product range from shelves in the United States is a commercially aggressive move by any measure. Indeed, the financial boon of the original settlement may well be thought to pale in comparison to the more tangible strategic benefits that would result, if the company get its way and successfully enjoins the products of their most prominent market rival.
For the move to succeed Apple will need to convince Judge Lucy Koh that the infringement stands up to a rigorous four-part test, no easy measure but one that industry lawyers suggest is likely to be successful. The injunction is reliant on Koh agreeing that Apple has suffered 'irreparable injury' from the sale of Samsung devices, that any financial recompense remains inadequate as a means of compensation, that alternative remedies are necessary and that any forthcoming ban would not be against the public interest.
If, as expected, Apple gets its way, there will inevitably be a series of appeals and delays - each of which will have a part to play in the ultimate impact of the ruling. Timing, you see, is everything. If the pieces fall in to place rapidly enough, then we could conceivably see a situation where Samsung is forced to remove its flagship Galaxy S3 model at the same time as Apple launch the iPhone 5. A series of events that would go a long way towards Apple wrestling back substantial market dominance.
The potential long-term gains for Apple, if the scenario were to play out this way can barely be overstated. By comparison, the original financial settlement awarded to them is a mere afterthought - far more important in terms of the symbolic value of the judgment than in purely monetary terms. If this were in any doubt, the reaction of the market to the ruling is fairly conclusive: following the judgment, Apple shares increased in value by more than $12bn, while Samsung's stock fell by a similar amount.
Apple is certainly no stranger to litigation, from the long-running dispute with Microsoft to ongoing attempts to claim ownership of the 'I' prefix. However, it is less the regularity and more the nature of their claims which make them noteworthy. As a company so heavily reliant on ethos, design and lifestyle – it is at the centre of a shifting patent landscape, which increasingly has to deal with 'ownership' of abstract concepts as opposed to technical innovations or mechanical processes.
American journalist and author Michael Wolff has suggested a vaguely Freudian reason for Apple's readiness to litigate, stating that Apple itself was allegedly "built on stolen iconography" and proceeds to punish those in whom it recognizes a reflection of itself. On the other hand, many an avid computer user has claimed that the alleged control exerted on the Apple customer from a software perspective is predictably echoed in the wider world.
In this case, it would certainly seem that Apple are on the right side of the law. But, more broadly, this type of case does suggest that the nature of the public sphere is shifting. It begs the question - when does a particular style or design aesthetic - so central to a brand like Apple - cease to be something that can be legitimately appropriated, replicated, misunderstood, misrepresented, lauded or even debased by the public at large?
Who can legitimately claim ownership over a shape or a colour shade? When does a Cezanne imitation simply become something in the 'Impressionist style'? It is questions such as these which form part of the ongoing debate around intellectual property and patent legislation. Undoubtedly, it will be companies such as Apple who will stand to either lose or gain most heavily by whatever answers are ultimately given.
Keiran Goddard is an author, journalist and communications consultant
Mobile apps 'revolutionising healthcare'
The new trend will be more personalised apps that are integrated with electronic medical records but better data management must be a priority – warns Malgorzata Filar