AH Tech Talk: The Archaic Patent Law Needs A Complete Overhaul

October 13, 2015 - Written By Kishalaya Kundu

Two of the world’s largest technology companies, Samsung Electronics and Apple Inc. have had a fairly remarkable relationship over the years. While Samsung had traditionally been one of Apple’s largest suppliers, the two companies got embroiled in patent-related controversies a few years back, with Apple insisting that the South Korean company had infringed upon a number of design-related patents held by the Cupertino, California-based company. This insistence and the resultant lawsuits saw Apple slowly winding up its business relations with Samsung and handing over its chip-manufacturing business to TSMC and its display panel orders to LG and JDI. Samsung was originally in charge of making the retina display panels on some of Apple’s iPad models, and was churning out the chips that go into Apple’s smartphones and tablets. To say that Apple’s overly litigious stance resulted in a frigid relationship between the two companies would be an understatement. While most companies resort to cross-licensing of product patents as a way of legally circumventing the complex – and at times stifling – patent regime, Apple, under former chief executive Steve Jobs, was aggressively pursuing the IP-related cases which could, at best, be described as minor and insignificant, if not outright flimsy and inconsequential.

While Tim Cook, the current chief executive at the Cupertino-based tech company, has since extended an olive branch to Samsung and the two have tried to put their past differences behind them, it is still not entirely business as usual for the companies because of the ghosts of lawsuits past. A federal circuits court had earlier this year, awarded Apple $548 million in damages, holding Samsung responsible for infringing upon three of Apple’s design patents. The USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) of course has since ruled that one of the patents in question should not have been awarded to Apple in the first place, while another one was invalidated at a later date. These new developments have meant that Samsung feels vindicated in its initial stance there was nothing to be infringed upon in the first place. Emboldened and invigorated by the USPTO’s latest assertions, the company now looks set to appeal the federal circuit court’s decision of awarding such a large settlement to Apple in the US Supreme court. Meaning, the two companies will remain embroiled in intellectual property-related ligation in the foreseeable future.

With so many high-profile IP-related confrontations in recent times, one needs to look at the legislation regarding patents and intellectual property in the first place for an insight into why the issue keeps cropping up, even when major multinational companies are not trying to blatantly rip each other off, but merely trying to compete on even terms, which becomes difficult with the inordinate amount of patents being awarded for minor design and UI-related elements. The US patent law was conceived as far back as in 1887, when the technology world, goes without saying, looked significantly different than it does now. The growing complexity of tech products, stemming from the technological advancements throughout the twentieth century and now the first decade and a half of the twenty-first, surely needs a complete revamping of the archaic nineteenth century legislation, which bizarrely, still governs the twenty-first century tech scene.

Talking about the old and outdated legislation that was meant to deal with much simpler products which did not use hundreds of different components with millions of lines of code, the law states that in case of an infringement, the alleged infringer would be held liable “to the extent of his total profits”. That in itself is a confusing contention these days, as it is difficult to estimate exactly how much one company has benefited from a particular infringement, if at all. In this particular case, Apple’s assertion that Samsung is to be held liable for ripping off the “look and feel” of its iPhones is contentious at best, seeing as even if one minor patent was infringed, how that can translate to the entire “look and feel” of the device remains a mystery. At this rate, a legislation which was originally conceived to promote, protect and preserve true innovation, is only going to end up stifling competition if retained in its current state in the changed scenario of the twenty-first century. Hence, the growing clamor for the immediate need to completely overhaul the existing law and replace it with something more suitable for the present day. It is now up to the Supreme Court to interpret the centuries-old law in a manner and way applicable to present times so as to restore the faith of true innovators and cut out anybody looking to exploit the obvious loopholes to throttle competition.