Asian Conversations - an online magazine to explore Asia's future

An Apple a day brings lawsuits your way

10 NOVEMBER, 2012: On 24 August, 2012, California courts awarded Apple US$1 billion in damages from Samsung, ruling that the latter had violated six of Apple’s patents. From seemingly trivial design patents – like rounded corners – to more vigorous complaints, such as replicating the iPhone’s “rubber-band” bounce back feature, the brawl has ruffled the feathers of the world’s top tech gurus, engineers, manufacturers and innovators. And with good reason.

According to Credit Suisse, the global smartphone market is set to reach US$207.6 billion this year, the Wall Street Journal reports. As contenders elbow for a bigger piece of the pie, patent lawsuits are becoming the weapon of choice. Companies have spent billions of dollars securing patents and suing each other, reaching a climax with the Apple-Samsung spat.

Though it’s still unclear whether the big picture is good for consumers, the ruling could have significant blowbacks in the meantime. First, upholding some of Apple’s more questionable patents legitimises trolling efforts to seize “legal” ground, akin to a land grab. “[The ruling] will encourage Apple to lob even more lawsuits at firms it believes are ripping off its intellectual property,” writes The Economist. That means another thrust forward in the company’s efforts to wage “thermonuclear war” on Android. “Apple is obviously going to try to ban as many infringing products as possible – they would be stupid not to,” Stuart Miles, founder of the UK's Pocket-lint gadget site, told BBC. The win also gives Apple an edge in the market, as the threat of patent lawsuits may send many manufacturers back to the drawing board.

Samsung has warned of "fewer choices, less innovation, and potentially higher prices", meaning Android devices may have to buy licenses to use Apple’s technology or re-invent themselves completely. This means either the license price would be passed on to consumers or there would be a marked slowdown in output of new devices. Both are bad scenarios for consumers. Additionally, the size of the sum awarded – the largest in history – could “discourage new entrants in the market for fear of attracting a lawsuit”, Technology analyst Colin Gillis of BGC Financial told the The Los Angeles Times.

Part of the problem lies in the arguably dysfunctional patent application process. After all, someone is approving these patents. “It seems that every half-baked idea that pops into a designer's head is thrown into the patent bin, and a big chunk of those are actually approved,” writes Engadget’s Steve Dent. “Not only does that stifle budding inventors and companies, it makes a mockery of what an invention actually is.”

Apple shouldn't start celebrating yet, though, warns Jasper Kim, founder of Seoul-based Global Research Center. According to Kim, Apple could see a backlash in South Korea. “An anti-Apple sentiment could… negatively affect sales,” he told BBC.

Looking at the big picture, TIME contributor and Silicon Valley industry analyst, Tim Bajarin argues that consumers actually come out on top when patents are upheld and rivals are forced to venture farther from the flock. But courtrooms may not be the healthiest way to inspire creativity. Innovation should be sparked by competitors “nipping at your heels", not legal battles, Brian Love, an assistant law professor at Santa Clara University, tells the LA Times. "The best thing for society and for consumers is if all technology companies would take all the money they are spending on lawyers and experts, and instead invest that money in research and design." – Kate Springer