Apple Beats Competition With Design--And Design Patents - InformationWeek
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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?

Apple iPhone 5 Vs. Samsung Galaxy S III: What We Know
Apple iPhone 5 Vs. Samsung Galaxy S III: What We Know
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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.

[ Learn how competitors will need to respond to Apple's patent win. See Samsung's Prospects Dim Vs. Apple; What Next, Android Designers? ]

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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Mark Nowotarski
Mark Nowotarski,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/26/2013 | 1:36:27 PM
re: Apple Beats Competition With Design--And Design Patents
Right now there is a series of new articles on IP Watchdog that look at Apple's Design Patents in detail. They lay out Apple's strategy for building a billion dollar portfolio. The latest is at
User Rank: Ninja
9/7/2012 | 10:37:12 PM
re: Apple Beats Competition With Design--And Design Patents
That is horrible news for consumers, because it will become more and more difficult for competitors to bring product to the market that keeps Apple on its toes. And what happens with quasi monopolies is what we saw with Microsoft and IE6. With Apple it will mean 95% market share for iPhones that will then cost 999$ with a 5 year contract that has fully metered data plans.
Scott Springman
Scott Springman,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/6/2012 | 10:05:31 PM
re: Apple Beats Competition With Design--And Design Patents
OK, don't buy the iPhone 5. Apple is responding to an aggressive appropriation of their hard work with an aggressive legal response. Very logical and good business.
User Rank: Apprentice
9/6/2012 | 5:24:22 PM
re: Apple Beats Competition With Design--And Design Patents
Care must be exercised not to grant design patents for aspects which are dictated by function. In the case of mobile phones -- or desk phone handsets -- the positions of the microphone to receive the caller's voice and speaker to transmit the other person's voice are dictated by function... by the geometry of the human head. In the car examples you cite, the positions of the steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedals, and dashboard instruments are strongly influenced by function. Neither Ferarri nor GM should be able to patent left-hand drive or right-hand drive arrangements, or the simple presence of a speedometer and tachometer. Use of the 3-pointed star in a circle as a logo for Mercedes-Benz would be protected, but simply putting one's logo in the center of the grille is not. I'm not worried about design patents as a general idea; I am more worried that Apple's specific design patents for a touch-screen-based smartphone may be overly broad.
User Rank: Apprentice
9/6/2012 | 2:53:47 PM
re: Apple Beats Competition With Design--And Design Patents
You clearly don't own any design patents, or you wouldn't be saying that! Good for you - that you don't buy any apple products (and others like you)! You contradicted yourself in your last statement:
"Protecting your investments is one thing, using design patents to stifle competition is another."
Apple is protecting their investment... 4 plus years of investment, to be exact!

Hopefully, this will spur on the market at large to develop something unique - and yes, patent the hell out of the design! Look at Microsoft, for an example.
User Rank: Apprentice
9/6/2012 | 2:52:16 PM
re: Apple Beats Competition With Design--And Design Patents
Design patents are NOT absurd. They are necessary to protect your unique creations.

Design patents are like trademarks. They protect the creatively created distinctive look and feel of a product. Trademarks aren't crazy. You can't just copy Apple's trademark apple symbol. You would lose that lawsuit.

Design patents are like copyrights. Sure, written works all have the same words. But it is the pattern of words that is copyrighted. Sure, paintings all use the same spectrum of color and paints. But it is the pattern of paints that is copyrighted. Copyrights aren't crazy.

Cars are design patented, for example. General Motors cannot just make their Corvette a clone of a Ferrari. Ferrari would sue GM's ass violating its design patents on their cars. And Ferrari would win such a lawsuit. They have won before.

Design patents do not stifle competition. Every car manufacturer knows this. Every car is distinctively different in look and feel from other cars. Design patents foster enormous creativity in car design when you just can't copy others.

The same with consumer electronics. Why have every iPhone competitor look and feel like an iPhone clone? Why not force companies to be creative? Why not force companies to compete with creativity? Just as in cars, design patents are great for competition.
User Rank: Apprentice
9/6/2012 | 2:35:05 PM
re: Apple Beats Competition With Design--And Design Patents
Design patents are absurd. I was waiting for the IPhone 5 to come out, but after reading about this lawsuit, I highly doubt that I will be buying any Apple products. Protecting your investments is one thing, using design patents to stifle competition is another.
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