‘Other designs are possible’

Apple and Samsung are at odds over patents. You might have read about it. In numerous courts, in numerous states, in numerous countries on numerous continents, the pair continue to file complaint after complaint. Apple says Samsung builds copycat devices that steal design elements from its iPad tablet and iPhone smartphone. Samsung says Apple’s mobile devices violate multiple Samsung patents covering communications standards. And round and round we go.

In the most recent development of note, a German judge on Friday upheld a ruling that will block Samsung’s local unit from selling the Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet in Germany. In her decision, Judge Johanna Brueckner-Hoffman stated, “The court is of the opinion that Apple’s minimalistic design isn’t the only technical solution to make a tablet computer, other designs are possible.” Other designs are possible. The judge continued, “For the informed customer there remains the predominant overall impression that the device looks [like the iPad].”

Well that’s just a tough break for Samsung.

There is little question that the physical design of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 closely resembles that of Apple’s iPad. Much like the physical design of any given flat panel television resembles that of any other model. Much like the physical design of any given laptop computer resembles that of any other model. Much like the physical design of any given Blu-ray player resembles that of any other model. Much like the physical design of any given ballpoint pen resembles that of any other model.

Designs should be protected, though. Pilot and Bic should clearly be at war over the design of the modern toss-away pen. Samsung, Sharp, Panasonic and every other consumer electronics company that builds televisions should be suing the pants off each other, and of course Apple should get in on the action if it enters the space next year with an “iTV” of its own. In fact, Charmin should be paying the descendants of a sixth-century Chinese man for every roll of toilet paper it sells. And, of course, Apple should pay IBM each time it sells a Mac Pro in a sleek tower.

Speaking of Apple’s decision to forgo the investigation of other possible designs, I wonder how LG feels about the court’s ruling.

I’m no German judge, but the iPhone 4 certainly seems to borrow from the “smooth, simple areas” and “minimal design” seen on the Prada smartphone LG unveiled in 2006. The iPhone 3GS, iPhone 3G and the original iPhone resemble LG’s design pretty closely as well, but the iPhone 4 definitely bears the most striking resemblance to this 45-month-old handset. Come to think of it, the current iPod touch is a Prada clone too, and the iPad looks just like an oversized version of LG’s design. And I would wager that the forthcoming iPhone 5 will copy the Prada, too.

Of course physical design is just one aspect of Apple’s numerous complaints against Samsung and other competitors. Apple’s copycat claims extend past physical design to technical patents, and even to overall user experience. But this particular complaint focused on a protected Community design — or, “a design-related intellectual property right registered with an EU agency” according to patent expert Florian Mueller — and Judge Brueckner-Hoffman clearly believed that the physical similarity between these devices was grounds on which to ban the sale of Samsung’s tablet.

Again, designs and innovations need to be protected, but to what extent and at what cost? The current system is not sustainable. As end user pricing is forced downward and margins get tighter, companies like HTC, ViewSonic and Acer will not be able to turn a profit when they have to pay companies like Microsoft every time they sell a phone. Apple and Microsoft might see this as a good thing since less competition means sales of their products will balloon. But Apple’s products copy designs and infringe on patents too, as do Microsoft’s, and every victory these two patent bullies enjoy will open new doors for complaints their competitors will file.

The simple truth is that a system shaped by lawyers may not be the best system for corporations. And it is certainly not the best system for consumers. Things need to change.

In the meantime, sales of the iPhone 4, iPad and iPod touch should be banned immediately the world over. Apple obviously puts a tremendous amount of weight on physical design. So much so that it allegedly tampered with evidence by manipulating photos of Samsung products to make them look more like Apple products. Twice.

The LG Prada set a precedent, and it is quite clear that “other designs are possible.”

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