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‘Imitation spurs innovation’

Author of ‘The Knockoff Economy’ calls Apple’s patent claim ‘just wrong’

April 13, 2016 - 17:38 By 이지윤
In the ever-evolving technology industry, companies build on each other’s ideas and continue to reinvent themselves. But tech giants Samsung and Apple are trying to slow each other down in a drawn-out patent battle.

The U.S. Supreme Court has recently decided to review the high-profile courtroom fight between the two top smartphone makers, the first time it has looked at a design patent case since the 1800s.

The rare decision comes after Samsung filed a request with the top court last year to reexamine the case that it lost to Apple, which resulted in the former paying $548 million to the latter. 


“If the Supreme Court is reasonable, it would overturn the lower court decision,” said Kal Raustiala, professor of UCLA School of Law, in a recent interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul.

“The idea that Samsung needs to discourage all its profits on the infringed phones when the patents represent only a small part of the reason why consumers buy the phones doesn’t really make sense,” he added.

The two companies have clashed since 2011, spending billions of dollars in court. Apple has claimed that Samsung infringed its design patents, including the iPhone’s rectangle design with curved corners, while Samsung has fought back by saying the ornamental design is just a piecemeal part of its complicated devices consisting of thousands of components.

One of the issues is the so-called entire-profits rule, under which the infringer must pay its total profits from infringing products. But Samsung is asking the court to apply on design patents the same damages standard for utility patents, in which courts must allocate the damages based on the value of the infringing feature.

Many legal experts expect that it will be unlikely for the court to overrule the lower court decision, but it has the potential to significantly diminish the power of design patents, at least on high-tech products.

“Apple’s claim that the rectangular device design is unique to it is just wrong,” said the professor. “If upheld, it would really constrain the ability of consumers to have a variety of products.”

He added that the fact that many big companies in Silicon Valley such as Google and Facebook are supportive of Samsung suggest that the lower court went too far and they need to rectify the balance between innovation and imitation.

“They agree Apple basically received too much from the lower court,” he said. “There is also concern that if design patents are powerful as they appear to be right now this could be very disruptive to the industry.”

Raustiala, one of the coauthors of the best-seller “The Knockoff Economy,” claimed that innovation and imitation are closely linked and that imitation can spur innovation.

“Samsung is without a question a company that has imitated some aspects of Apple. But likewise Apple has imitated other companies,” he said, referring to Apple’s iPhone 6S Plus, which had a bigger screen compared to previous versions of the iPhone and was launched after Samsung’s Note phablet.

He pointed out that consumers also benefit from companies imitating one another.

“Copying too much is a problem. But some degree of copying can lead to cheaper, better products for consumers. So I think in the end the rivalry between Samsung and Apple will genuinely be good for consumers,” he said. 

By Lee Ji-yoon (