Apple-Samsung Litigation — Perspectives and Retrospectives  
Apple won last week a 1 billion USD lawsuit against Samsung: the Samsung Galaxy smartphone infringed on some patents that Apple owned related to the external appearance of the iPhone and the behavior of some parts of the iOS (the iphone operating system). Specifically, the patents infringed concerned:
(i)  the design and shape of the iPhone's face, screen, speaker slot, rounded corners
(ii)  the arrangement of the icons at start
(iii)  the Pinch-to-zoom feature — US Patent #7,844,915 [l] and also US Patent #7,812,826 [l]
(iv)  the Tap-to-zoom feature — US Patent #7,864,163 [l]
(v)  the bounce-back scrolling — US Patent #7,469,381 [l]

A couple of youtube videos may make you feel some sympathy for Samsung on this case.

LG Prada (winner of a 2007 iF Design Award for which entries had to be shipped before Sep 2006). Not only were there resemblances in physical appearance between the 2006 Prada and the first generation iphone (2007) but the latest iphone — the iphone 4 — is even more similar to the 2006 Prada (the back plate, the silver side panels, and the corners).

Courant Inst. of Math. Science Jeff Han's multi-touch display recorded in February 2006 in Monterey CA. Fast-forward to 3:00 for pinch-to-zoom, one functionality that Apple claims was “copied” in Android from iOS; also see 6:00 for pinch-to-zoom on a map.

If Apple could “copy” the cell phone appearance by LG Prada and the multi-touch pinch-to-zoom by Jeff Han, why can't Samsung do the same? Let's examine the pinch-to-zoom patent infringement, which is arguably the most important here. Despite Apple not being the first to showcase a workable pinch-to-zoom on a touchscreen, they hold patents to this effect, although these patents were filed more than 10 months after Jeff Han's talk in Monterey. Then, how could Apple be granted these patents despite the existence of prior art? It could be due to the patent's examiner not being aware of Jeff Han's work. Or it could be due to Jeff Han's pinch-to-zoom not yet having been patented and hence not being well documented and hence not being well understood by the patent examiner (academicians like Jeff Han rarely file patents — rather, they publish their innovations in conference proceedings and scientific journals).
Clearly, Apple was not the first to display a workable pinch-to-zoom technology. Credit should be given to the Apple programmers for implementing Han's pinch-to-zoom within the iOS, but equal credit should be given to the Google and Samsung programmers for implementing the same functionality within the Linux kernel and the Android user interface. Apple may have the law on its side in claiming that Samsung infringed its patents, but sometimes — as in this case — the law doesn't make much sense. I think it is misleading to state that Android “copied” iOS on this point, and non-Apple-owned OSes (Linux Android, Windows, Blackberry OS, etc) should be allowed to reproduce pinch-to-zoom without paying Apple, regardless of patent law.

What goes around comes around, and it seems Apple will soon get a taste of its own medicine. Motorola owns several patents on mobile devices that were supposedly infringed by Apple on the iphone (including email notifications, siri, video playback, and others). Google, who now owns Motorola, is now suing Apple on these patent infringements.
This is looking bleak for the future of software development. Until now, software intellectual property was generally protected through copyrights, not through patents (patents were generally reserved for physical devices). After last week's ruling, and as long as this is not overruled, patents will most likely prevail over copyrights in assessing software intellectual ownership, at least in the U.S. If pinch-to-zoom or tap-to-zoom can be patented, software companies will soon file patents for other trivial functionalities such as double-tap, triple-tap, etc. Over time, this will make it impossible for software developers to write any type of code that doesn't impinge on others patents, even though they stay clear of a copyright violation.
Perhaps it's time for an update of U.S. patent law. At the very least, I hope other countries do not follow suit and keep patents away from software intellectual property protection.
08.31.12
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