In April 2011, Apple first sued Samsung for infringement of several of it’s smartphone patents. These patents covered technologies that Apple believed was present in 26 of Samsung’s smart phone product offering. Apple alleged not only that this technology was not rightfully used, but also that it diluted the Apple brand and as such Apple needed remuneration. In this highly publicized decision, Apple won on all arguments and was deemed deserving of one billion in damages from Samsung’s activities. After the trial, Apple moved for an injunction on Samsung’s production and distribution of the 26 smartphones that were found to be in violation of Apple’s patents. This motion was denied and Samsung was allowed to continue production of its smartphones. Two years later Apple filed for an injunction in the US District Court of Appeals in Northern California, but was again denied. What are the legal dilemmas in patent law behind this decision that separate an injunction from illegal use of patented technology?
Three of the six disputed patents covered the design of the iPhone; the other three patents covered utility functions. In the design patents, vague language was used that could arguably apply to all smartphones currently on the market. Apple’s patents claim protection over, “a minimalist design for a rectangular smartphone consisting of a large rectangular display occupying most of the phone’s front face. The corners of the phone are rounded.” At first glance, even this wording seems vague and problematic, almost all smart phones today have this design. The utility patents covered the functions of “double-tap-to-zoom”, “multi-touch display” and “bounce back” in scrolling.
The US District Court of Appeals in Northern California upheld the previous courts decision with regards to the injunction request based on the design patents. The appellate court maintained that no evidence had changed, but believed that the court had abused it’s discretion with regards to the utility patents. The appellate court found that Apple had actually suffered irreparable harm by Samsung’s design in the form of market sales and downstream sales. However identifying this harm is not enough to ensure an injunction ruling; Apple has to establish that the violation of the patents is what directly led to this irreparable damage in what is called causal nexus.
In the appellate court’s decision are several precedent setting conclusions that will be increasingly important in the patent wars that currently plague the world of technology. First, the appellate court decided that the misuse of the patented technology does not have to be sole cause of some incident of harm, which is what the district court originally surmised. This widens the threshold for a causal relationship between patent violation and inflicted harm. Secondly, the appellate court also stipulated that patents can be valued in aggregate terms. Apple presented their patents in this manner to the district court, which at the time of the first hearing had rejected that form of evidence. The appellate court, however, found that patents reflected in the aggregate are more akin to logical analysis.
In the final decision of the appellate court, the court upheld the district court’s refusal of injunction based on the design patents. This decision pointed to the overly vague language used in the patents and the failure to translate those definitions into causal harm. However, in regards to utility patents and the actual function of applications, the appellate court found that the district court had incorrectly based some of its decision on dismissal of proper evidence. The district court originally rejected evidence on the claims that it was not the sole cause of harm; however, a cause does not have to be singular. In this instance, the court of appeals vacated the district court’s rejection of injunction for the utility patents and reached the conclusion that further analysis of this relationship is necessary.
Apple should view this decision from the district court of appeals as a victory, yet it only perpetuates the largest case in a series of patent wars. The ongoing battle between Apple and Samsung has spanned 10 countries and shows no signs of ending in the near future. The courts’ struggle to reach a comprehensive agreement on many of the set a precedent that will affect ongoing cases. In a time when computer technology seems to be taking over the world, the decisions of courts will write another chapter the complex patent war.
 Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., 11-CV-1846 1, 5, (United States District Court for the Northern District of California 2013).
 Cal Civil Code § 526
 Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., 11-CV-1846 1, 10, (United States District Court for the Northern District of California 2013).
Photo Credit: Flickr user Sean MacEntee