August 25, 2011

Who Are You Suing, Dave?

In the wake of the news that Steve Jobs is stepping down as the head of the cult . . . er, company that he helped found, Apple, here’s some interesting litigation action going on over one of their patents for the iPad.

Apple has sued Samsung for infringing on its patent for the iPad. In its defense, Samsung is arguing that the form of the iPad wasn’t really all that groundbreaking anyway, and so the patent Apple received should never have been granted in the first place (my understanding is that this a common line of argument in such cases). To bolster their argument, Samsung has turned to an unlikely source of legal support – Stanley Kubrick.

Specifically, his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey:
'In a clip from that film lasting about one minute, two astronauts are eating and at the same time using personal tablet computers,' the lawyer wrote . . .. As with the design claimed by Apple’s patent, 'the tablet disclosed in the clip has an overall rectangular shape with a dominant display screen, narrow borders, a predominately flat front surface, a flat back surface (which is evident because the tablets are lying flat on the table’s surface), and a thin form factor.'
See for yourself (Samsung lawyers included this link in their filing):

Full disclosure – I know next to nothing about patent law, so I have no opinion on whether this is a winning argument. According to one of the comments to the Wall Street Journal blog piece, the litigation is entirely about the look of the products, not their actual function (in other words, it’s about the outside, not the electronic guts inside). If that’s the case, Apple seems to be reaching to “own” such a generic design.

And it wouldn’t be the first time that a forward thinking piece of science fiction scuttled a later inventors quest for a monopoly:
Science fiction has been used as prior art in patent lawsuits before — Robert A. Heinlein described something like a waterbed in a 1930s short story, and this was cited in a successful case against someone who wanted to patent the waterbed in the 1960s.
Maybe I should start working in patent law. That way I could read sci-fi all day and call it "legal research!"

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