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Samsung product chief likens Apple patent litigation to "fighting over rectangles"

July 31, 2012

It’s like “fighting over rectangles,” Samsung’s Chief Product Officer Kevin Packingham has said of the Apple vs. Samsung patent litigation. In an interview with Wired, the executive details Samsung’s frustration over the seemingly endless attack against their Galaxy line of Android smartphones and tablets, with some arguments bordering on the trivial.

Apple and Samsung have been biting at each other for alleged patent infringements, with lawsuits spanning ten countries on four continents. Apple initiated the offensive, as the Cupertino, CA company claims that Android (and companies running the platform) have “slavishly” copied the iPhone and iOS. As such, Android smartphone makers have had to bear the brunt of lawsuits, chief among them Samsung, which is Apple’s main rival in the mobile business today.

Just Rectangular Pieces of Glass?

While the two companies were given a chance to reach a potential out-of-court settlement, the discussions went nowhere, and this Monday has marked the start of actual courtroom hearings. These early discussions have shed light to the plethora of Apple iPhone prototypes, which have included various shapes and form factors. Prototypes that would not make it past mockup stage can be described as anything from unwieldy to downright ugly. But there’s one thing in common: they’re mostly rectangular.

This seems to be Apple’s main argument against Samsung’s smartphones and tablets in question, which has put Samsung on the defense. “For us, it’s unreasonable that we’re fighting over rectangles, that that’s being considered as an infringement, which is why we’re defending ourselves,” said Packingham.

The product chief discussed how it can likewise be frustrating to both deal with Apple as a litigant and as a component customer, with Samsung supplying memory chips and screens that power the iPhone and iPad. However, he contends that just like any other electronics business, Samsung also sources chips from other suppliers, as well.

Form vs. Function

Samsung’s complaint against Apple involves mostly 3G-related patents, and Apple has eschewed responsibility, saying these are supposed to have been standards-essential patents, which should come with a lower licensing fee. However, Packingham feels these arguments are more relevant, from an engineering standpoint.

“Logically, as an engineering and manufacturing company, it makes more sense to focus on the things that are really relevant and we think are truly intellectual property,” Packingham said. “They are truly unique, and have come intrinsically out of the investments we made in R&D.”

Samsung products happened to have been marketed in the shape of rectangles, although the art and science behind these creations are in the underlying technology, and not just in the rectangular shape, he stressed.

If companies are fighting over rectangles, then perhaps the patent system is, indeed, broken. Of course, we can argue that the generic shape and form factor of product design is one thing, and the functional design behind these products is another. But the big question now is whether Apple will  be able to convince the judge and jury that  they really do own intellectual property rights to all those rectangular pieces of glass with touchscreens.