Samsung/Apple: Revenge of the Rounded Rectangles (Functionally Speaking)

by Matt Schruers on October 18, 2012

Some time ago we covered the Samsung-Apple smartphone-tablet suit/countersuit, ridiculing the notion that a flat, rounded, rectangular object could be the subject of a design patent.  CCIA’s Ed Black opined to similar effect in Forbes. Design patents protect ornamentation, and – properly construed – should not foreclose competitors from using functional characteristics of design.

Our previous post articulated what I will call the ‘good-idea-not-to-put-sharp-objects-in-your-pants principle’:   On a pocketable device, rounded corners provide obvious functional elements that no one, including Apple, is entitled to own.  To do otherwise would stifle competition.

That notion received a vote of confidence from appellate judges in the UK today, even though, under somewhat controversial circumstances, a U.S. jury found for Apple in the case we were referring to at the time.  (N.B.  This was with respect to smartphones, but not tablets.  That decision is on appeal, and earlier this month the court lifted a sales ban on Samsung’s Galaxy Tab.)

The Guardian reports that in an appellate decision this morning regarding the Samsung Galaxy Tab, UK courts affirmed a similar stance.  The trial court had held that “[t]he rectangular display screen is totally banal and determined solely by function.”

The Court of Appeal seems to agree with our ‘principle’ on the functional questions, saying “rounded corners are unremarkable (and have some obvious functional value in a hand-held device), and (3) you need a border of some sort for functional reasons. There is some design freedom as regards ornamentation, the rim, the overall shape (rectangular or with some curved sides) but not a lot.”

In concluding, the appellate court opinion offers some of the most sensible words yet to be spoken on this dispute yet:

I would add that even if I were forming my own view of the matter, I would have come to the same conclusion and for the same reasons.  If the registered design has a scope as wide as Apple contends it would foreclose much of the market for tablet computers. Alterations in thickness, curvature of the sides, embellishment and so on would not escape its grasp. Legitimate competition by different designs would be stifled.”

(emphasis mine).

  • David Flores

    The biggest problem with Apple’s claim, as I see it, is that they attempted to patent “minimalist design.” What does this mean, exactly? It means they wanted to patent a basic shape, stripped of distinguishing characteristics. But IMHO that is not something that trade dress patents should protect. Rather, trade dress patents should protect variations from or additions to a basic shape. A good example would be the little loop that Barnes & Noble adds to their Nook Color tablet at the bottom left hand corner.

    • http://www.project-disco.org/ Matt Schruers

      I agree with the concern.  It is not unlike the problem of abstraction that afflicts technology utility patents in general.  If the claimed “ornamentation” is a lack of ornamentation, granting that right gives ownership over the blank slate itself.  

      I think the Nook loop is another good example of functional/ornamental.  To the extent that loop serves a functional purpose, (e.g., a strap hitch) Barnes & Noble cannot assert rights over executing the purpose, only the unique styling of the loop.

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