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A grand piece of theater is unfolding in San Jose, California where Apple (s aapl) is conducting an intellectual property show trial against Samsung. The iPad maker claims its Korean rival is a cheat that copied Apple’s gadgets instead of making its own.
The storyline (true or not) is simple enough — a popular inventor fights to protect the fruits of its genius from a shameless imitator. But Apple’s ability to tell that simple story in court is based on a sophisticated legal strategy that took as much time and creativity to develop as any one of its products.
Apple’s custom-built legal strategy can be seen in the unusual legal arrows it’s using to sling Samsung. The company’s dramatic accusations that Samsung “slavishly copied” the design of the iPad and iPhone, for instance, are based on a type of patent (called “design patents“) unfamiliar even to most intellectual property lawyers.
Far less common than conventional “utility patents,” design patents protect the ornamental aspects of a practical object. According to law professor Sarah Burstein of the University of Oklahoma, design patents were traditionally limited to fields like furniture and lighting until Apple began obtaining them for consumer electronics.
“It’s a credit to Apple and its patent counsel who made progress in getting them through clever claiming,” said Burstein, who specializes in design patents.
In addition to design patents, Apple is also using another lesser known form of intellectual property known as “trade dress” to jab Samsung. Unlike trademarks which protects names and logos, trade dress protects distinctive shapes and packaging like Jif’s lemon juice bottle or, in this case, the iPad.
“Most companies don’t do much with design patents and trade dress. It’s an after-thought but wasn’t for Steve Jobs,” said intellectual property lawyer Peter Toren of Weisbrod, Matteis & Copley, noting that Jobs has his name on hundreds of design patents, including the stairs of the Apple store.
Interlocking legal forcefields
Neil Wilkof, an Israeli law professor and IP lawyer, says the company’s fixation with intellectual property dates back to the 1980s when it confronted clones that copied the operating systems of Apple II computers. Apple made history in 1982 when it won an appeals court verdict declaring for the first time that companies could use copyright to protect the software embedded in chips.
For Apple, this was just the beginning of an effort to push out the legal boundaries protecting its products. By the 1990s, Apple lawyers had developed a strategy of wrapping layer after layer of legal rights around each gadget. These layers can include one of its dozens of i-related trademarks or some of the thousands of patents in Apple’s portfolio.
“Apple is very much a believer in using a coordinated, comprehensive intellectual property protection scheme,” said Toren, the IP lawyer.
In practice, this means that any Apple product — from basic headphones to a 16 GB iPad — is bristling with utility patents, design patents, trade secrets, trade dress, copyright and other legal spikes designed to keep its competitors far, far away.
The company’s obsession with intellectual property is also reflected in its refusal to prune its patent portfolio. Typically, companies let some of their weak patents lapse rather than paying thousands of dollars in maintenance fees to hold onto them. Not Apple. According to the Patently-O blog, Apple never abandons a single patent.
And the company is still at it. Apple’s most recent coup is what appears to be an unprecedentedly broad design patent for the wedge shape of its Mac Book Air laptop.
More harm than good?
Apple’s bulging intellectual property package is paying off in its fight with Samsung. The company can hold up each patent or trademark as a badge to tell the jury and the press that it alone is the inventor. If the company wins in San Jose, the verdict will vindicate both its narrative and its aggressive legal strategy.
In the bigger picture, though, Apple’s innovative use of intellectual property may ultimately be harming it and everyone else. In the years since Apple won its 1982 copyright claim, more and more companies are clogging the courts with IP claims of every description. These include big companies who use their IP to squash startups that can’t afford lawyers as well as patent trolls — shell companies that don’t make anything but use second-hand patents to shake down companies that do (including Apple).
In the hype surrounding the Apple-Samsung, it can be easy to forget that, for consumers, more intellectual property means more monopolies — and higher prices. It also means that companies divert research money to lawyers and that the overall space for innovation shrinks.