Apple Beats Competition With Design--And Design Patents
Apple has invested more in design patents than many other tech companies since it launched the iPhone in 2007. Is that good news for consumers?
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Apple, unlike other technology companies that rely on utility patents to protect their innovations, has relied to an increasing degree on design patents in recent years.
By forging the modern smartphone layout first and patenting its screen-centric design, Apple now finds itself in the enviable position of being able to force competitors to tread warily in their layout of smartphone elements.
Before the iPhone, part of the cell phone's face was given over to an alphanumeric keypad. When the iPhone first appeared in January 2007, some skeptics mocked its dark glass face--the dark oily pond, in the words of Apple designers. With a touch screen, the software at work in the heart of the phone would allow to see whatever you wished in its depths, as opposed to being stuck on a standard keypad.
Furthermore, Apple perfected the precision and responsiveness of capacitive resistance screens. Previous touch screens had needed to flex or stretch slightly in response to a human touch to generate an electrical impulse to be captured and acted on by the user interface. The iPhone showed the potential of the new screens by increasing their size, giving them a hard glass surface that responded to light finger gestures, and using them as a showcase for content as well as keys.
Apple's CEO, the late Steve Jobs, boasted that he had "patented the hell out of the iPhone," and not because Apple had invented the underlying touch screen technologies. In many cases it hadn't. But it had pulled those technologies together into a distinctive design that slowly, then with gathering force, came to dominate the smartphone market.
And when one of Apple's primary suppliers of parts for the iPhone, Samsung, the Korean component manufacturer, also emerged as a competitor with its Galaxy S line, Apple was in a strong legal position to respond and sue the company. Utility patents constituted three of patents at issue in the trial; design patents were the other four.
Unlike other technology companies, which typically have 2.7% of their patent portfolio tied up in design patents, Apple has 11.8% of its 6,309 patents, or 763, as design patents, according to the patent database at MDB Capital Group.
"Many of those patents have to do with the look and feel of the device. Apple really cares about the user experience," said Erin-Michael Gill, chief intellectual property officer for the IP investment bank in New York Santa Monica, Calif., and other locations.
At the same time, Apple has positioned itself to take advantage of design patents at a time when the shrinking real estate of computing devices to handheld size dictates some design choices. For those companies opting for capacitive resistance screens now, will their competitive position be better or worse if their screens are distinctly smaller--and therefore non-infringing--than the iPhone's?
Christopher Carani, chairman of the American Bar Association's Design Patents Committee and member of the Chicago law firm McAndrews, Held & Malloy, said Apple's emphasis on design will force other technology companies to invest in design and design patents as well. "This should be viewed as a perfect opportunity to 'go back to the drawing board.' This is good news for consumers." The decision was "a resounding victory for not only Apple but also designers and design rights in general."
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