The Samsung tablet ban: What it means and what happens next (in plain English)

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Apple enjoyed a triumph this week when it persuaded a federal judge to ban a tablet computer that Apple claims was “slavishly copied” from its famous iPad. Is this a game changer that will allow the iPad to dominate for a long time to come? Here’s a simple explanation of what happened and what comes next.

What is this iPad impostor and how did Apple ban it?

In 2011, Korean electronics maker Samsung began selling a device called the Galaxy 10.1, which Apple said infringed its patents. Since a patent can allow an owner to exclude others from the market, Apple sought a ban in the form of a preliminary injunction.

What do Apple’s patents cover?

Apple’s lawsuits threw everything but the kitchen sink at Samsung, but the iPad maker ultimately prevailed on a special type of a patent called a “design patent” that covers the look and feel of an invention (you can learn about Apple’s design patents here). Apple is also hitting the Samsung Galaxy with a separate suit based on conventional “utility patents,” but for now the design patents have done the trick.

I thought the judge said Apple’s design patent was invalid?

She did. In a widely reported episode last fall, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh waved both tablets in the air and said she couldn’t tell the difference — meaning that Samsung had infringed the design patent. But she also said it didn’t matter because Apple’s patent was likely to be found invalid on the grounds that it was an obvious design based on earlier tablets. This is why she refused in December to grant Apple an injunction. You can decide for yourself whether the iPad design was obvious based on the earlier tablets:

Apple appealed Koh’s conclusion that the iPad design was obvious. The appeals court sided with Apple, suggested the design was not obvious and sent the case back to Koh to decide if an injunction should be granted. This week she agreed to grant a temporary one.

So what happens now?

Koh’s temporary injunction goes into effect as soon as Apple can scrape together a $2.6 million bond. Once it does (we imagine Apple can find the money), Samsung has to pull its tablets off of store shelves.

Why does Apple have to post a bond?

Apple has to post the bond because the injunction is just preliminary — something to protect it until the case goes to a full trial and a court can decide whether or not to impose a permanent injunction. But in reality, a court only grants a preliminary injunction if a party is likely to win in the long run. And, more importantly, by the time the case gets to trial, both tablets in question will be obsolete.

Can Samsung appeal the preliminary injunction?

Yes, and it already has.  Samsung has almost no chance of winning, however, because appeals courts are very reluctant to disturb a temporary order. The company could also file for an emergency stay but that would likely fail as well.

So is this a crushing blow to Samsung’s tablet ambitions?

Here’s the catch. The temporary injunction only applies to Samsung’s 10.1 tablet which, according to my mobile expert colleagues, is already out of date and was vanishing from Best Buy even before the injunction. Meanwhile, Samsung is selling a new model, the Galaxy Tab 2, of its tablet for a lower price on Amazon (meaning the offending 10.1 tablet is basically irrelevant). And, according to our Kevin Tofel:  “GT 2 has a visual difference: speakers around the bezel, making it look less like the iPad.”

Bottom line is that Apple won the preliminary injunction but it won’t really matter in the marketplace.

So did Apple just spend tens of millions in legal fees for nothing?

Yes and no. On the legal front, it has nothing to show but a symbolic victory — the injunction on the out-of-date Galaxy 10.1 won’t really hurt Samsung, which is free to sell its later models.

On the other hand, Apple has won a big PR victory. It can use Judge Koh’s decision to burnish its reputation as an innovator and also serve notice (yet again) to Samsung and other would-be competitors to stay away from the iPad design.

I just can’t get enough of this patent stuff. Where can I learn more?

Given the money at stake in the patent fights, some companies have stooped to paying ethically challenged bloggers who write propagandized news stories without revealing who is paying them to do so. For honest coverage, you can rely on wire services like Reuters and Bloomberg whose reporters are not paid by the companies they cover. For more in-depth coverage about patent law in general, you can read leading blogs like Patently-O or the IPKat.

(Image by Maxx-Studio via Shutterstock)

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