When Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone at Macworld 2007, he elicited quite a few laughs when he exclaimed, "... and boy have we patented it!"
Two years later, starting with its 2009 suit against Nokia, Apple's patent infringement lawsuits began piling up in quick succession.
Since then, Apple has been embroiled in litigation with a number of hardware manufacturers regarding alleged patent infringement. While Apple ultimately secured settlement agreements with both HTC and Nokia, its patent war against Motorola and Samsung continues to rage on in nine countries across four continents.
That being the case, the Wall Street Journal today asks a rather pointed question -- are the smartphone legal battles actually yielding any tangible benefits?
The nearly $300 billion industry has been roiled by more than three years of expensive litigation in courts from California to South Korea. But a string of rulings in big cases has left litigants with little to show for all the trouble. The courts have proven as likely to deliver plaintiffs a rebuke as a win, and the slow grinding of the justice system has sapped the impact of the occasional big victories.
It's undoubtedly an interesting question worthy of debate.
Take Apple's ongoing lawsuit with Samsung, for example. The two companies have been going at it since April, 2011 and both sides at this point are reluctant to even cede an inch. And sure, while Apple found itself on the receiving end of a $1.05 billion judgement against Samsung last summer, the company hasn't yet seen a dime of that money. Indeed, the two companies are headed back to court this November in an effort to recalculate the correct amount of damages owed to Apple.
It's also worth noting that despite Apple's best efforts, it simply hasn't been able to secure any meaningful and long-lasting injunction against any accused Samsung devices. All the while, Samsung's profits keep soaring to all-time highs.
What's more, the quick-moving nature of the smartphone industry coupled with a relatively slow legal process typically leaves Apple fighting battles against products with diminishing relevance. Apple, in effect, is perpetually finding itself one step behind.
From this vantage point, it stands to reason that Apple's legal efforts against Samsung are nothing more than a money drain.
On the other side of the coin, one can argue that Apple's patent battles may serve to deter future infringement. After all, if a company realizes that Apple will spare no expense in defending its intellectual property, perhaps they'll be that much more careful not to release something too similar to the iPhone. It's also worth noting that Samsung has tweaked some of its software in response to patent infringement allegations from Apple.
Further, while there doesn't seem to be an end in sight for Apple's battle with Samsung, remember that Apple was able to come to an amicable settlement agreement with Nokia and, more recently, secure a 10-year cross licensing agreement with HTC. To that end, Apple's patent battles have, in fact, yielded beneficial results.
Overall, it's easy with the benefit of hindsight to gauge the efficacy and wisdom of Apple's legal strategy. Apple, however, doesn't have this luxury. When a company like Samsung comes along and releases products that Apple feels deeply infringe upon their design and utility patents, it has to make a calculated decision in a condensed period of time. It can either go to court, seek a settlement arrangement, threaten Samsung to change its products or sit idly by and do nothing.
In a few years we'll likely have a better grasp as to the prudence of Apple's decision to take Samsung to court, but until then, it's certainly an interesting question to ponder.