You could hardly make it up: Apple, its patent arguments not only rejected by UK courts, but instructed to do some advertising on Samsung’s behalf to dismiss its rival’s “arch copyist” reputation. That’s a reputation Apple was instrumental in creating, of course, and while Samsung is throwing no small amount of money at its own defense, this latest spanking to its Cupertino rival/customer’s pride is only likely to bolster its unofficial stance that the ongoing phone and tablet war is nothing but good for brand awareness. Question is, will being forced to make a very public apology temper Apple’s appetite for litigation?
Make no mistake, this very public mea culpa marks a tipping point in how patent battles are being fought – and potentially impacting consumers. Until now, spats between companies like Apple, Samsung, HTC, Google, Microsoft and Motorola have been the subject of discussion only among geeks and lawyers: for most end-consumers, it’s been a case of “what is there on store shelves for me to choose between?”
That’s been Apple’s target – and the goal of others – to cut down on the range of distractions from their own products. If you don’t see, say, a Samsung tablet or an ASUS one nuzzling up next to the iPad, you’re probably more likely to pick the tablet you can buy there and then. The tech community may be becoming increasingly vocal at the general patent-war tactics companies are utilizing, but as long as their majority counterparts in the consumer marketplace don’t get involved, this “do what you can to impact the shelves” approach is worth playing.
All that changes when, not only are your attempts to game the shelves prevented, but you’re told you have to tell your potential mass-market customers that you’ve been over-reaching in your arguments. The UK court’s demand that Apple must take out prominent adverts dismissing suggestions that Samsung copied the iPad’s design takes the patent war out of the courts and the blogs and straight into consumer mindshare.
Apple is appealing the ruling but, assuming it is upheld, is the potential for such public shaming likely to make the company more hesitant of pulling rivals into court? Perhaps not; patents are tricky things, and if you don’t sufficiently protest when your competitors are potentially infringing them, eventually you lose them altogether.
Until now, that battle process has been one companies are very willing to wade into. As the fall-out starts to spill over from the legal team to the marketing department, though, that could change. Apple and others might be more willing to consider licensing deals and settlements, if the alternative was the risk of being forced to pay for complimentary advertising for your fiercest rivals. Hopefully that will take some of the wind from the sails of tit-for-tat patent spats until more comprehensive intellectual property reform arrives.