Briefing

Apple vs. Samsung: Who owns smart phones?

Why Apple and Samsung suits and counter suits still fly, and what's next.

By , Staff Writer

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    Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S III, right, and Apple's iPhone 4S are displayed at a mobile phone shop in Seoul, South Korea. After a year of scorched-earth litigation, a jury decided Friday that Samsung ripped off the innovative technology used by Apple to create its revolutionary iPhone and iPad. The jury in San Jose, Calif., ordered Samsung to pay Apple $1.05 billion. An appeal is expected.
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All year, Apple and Samsung have locked horns over mobile-phone patents. The two tech giants make close to half of the world's smart phones. But Apple says many of Samsung's popular devices, specifically ones that run Google's Android operating system, rip off the iPhone. As legal decisions roll in from Germany, Australia, South Korea, Japan, and a US district court, Samsung has already been fined more than $1 billion.

What did Samsung do wrong?

In August, an American jury decided that 28 Samsung smart phones unfairly lifted ideas from the iPhone. The Korean company infringed on Apple features such as:

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•Finger controls: Apple patented the idea of using one finger to scroll and multiple fingers for other interactions, such as the "pinch-to-zoom" gesture that enlarges images.

•Bounce-back: When an iPhone user reaches the bottom of a Web page, the phone scrolls a little beyond the bounds of the page and then snaps back. Apple patented this rubber-bandlike flourish.

•Tap-to-zoom: Double-clicking on part of a website will make an iPhone zoom in on that section.

•Appearance: Samsung phones look too similar to the iPhone's patented design, such as its clean front, edge-to-edge glass, rounded corners, and other specific features. Samsung could have incorporated one or two of these design aspects, but it borrowed too many.

•Icon design: The main menu on certain Samsung phones illegally copies the iPhone's. Both use colorful, rounded-rectangular icons, with a special bottom row for the most important features.

Are such patents too broad?

The jury had the option to strike down any of these patents. Samsung argued during the trial that companies had already demonstrated ideas that Apple claims to have invented. For example, six years before the iPhone, Mitsubishi unveiled the DiamondTouch, a touch-screen table with features that resemble bounce-back and pinch-to-zoom. This evidence of "prior art" did not sway the jury. A higher court may feel differently.

Does this mean that all Android phones violate Apple's patents?

Not necessarily. While Samsung is one of many companies that make Android devices, it modified Google's original code to add extra features and visual flair. After the US trial, Google released a statement saying that most of Samsung's infringements "don't relate to the core Android operating system."

What happens next?

This fight is far from over. A South Korean case recently decided that Apple and Samsung both infringed on each other's patents. A Japanese court said Samsung did not violate Apple patents related to syncing music and video between devices. They still await judgments in a handful of other countries.

This global slugfest worries many onlookers. Apple's lawyers won over the American jury with its narrative that Steve Jobs and his crew invented the iPhone, and then Samsung simply ripped it off. But Apple and most tech powerhouses have spent billions over the past few years buying patents for things they didn't invent. Analysts hypothesize that Google purchased Motorola Mobility last year for $12 billion mostly for its wealth of patents. These massive stockpiles offer a sense of mutual assured destruction. Don't sue me because I'll just sue you back.

Software patents are written in a purposefully vague way to make them as broad as possible, says Julie Samuels, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "This creates a world where not only are litigation costs out of control, but the parties feel like they really need to build up their patent portfolios," she says. "That is incredibly expensive, and that is a cost that, at the end of the day, consumers will bear."

For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.

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