A trade court in Dusseldorf, Germany has found Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd.'s guilty of violating Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) patented design, which is featured in the iPad.
I. Only Apple Can Make "Minimalist" Tablets
Presiding Judge Johanna Brueckner-Hofmann remarked upon delivering the verdict, "The court is of the opinion that Apple’s minimalistic design isn’t the only technical solution to make a tablet computer, other designs are possible. For the informed customer there remains the predominant overall impression that the device looks."
Apple filed a patent on the design of the iPad with European Union intellectual property agency in Alicante, Spain.
At first glance you'll notice significant differences between the iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1, Samsung's primary competitive product. The two devices are different aspect ratios (e.g. their rectangular faces are different) and the Samsung device has no physical face buttons (Apple has a single "Home" button).
But the German court's ruling appears to state that Apple owns sole rights to "minimalist" tablet designs. According to Apple's patent, a "minimalist" design is any thin rectangular tablet, with few buttons on its face.
Ultimately, this ruling seems to indicate that Apple has sole rights to make ~10-inch tablets in Germany. While a competitor in theory could make a rival design, it would have to:
- Have an abundance of physical buttons on the face
- Be substantially thicker or heavier than the iPad
- Not be a rectangle (e.g. a circular tablet)
Of course options 'a' and 'b', would seem undesirable to most customers as customers desire thin, lightweight devices which they interact with primarily through the touchscreen, not clunky physical buttons. And option 'c' would likely be unfeasible with current screen designs.
Apple has already secured a second preliminary injunction banning sales of the Galaxy Tab 7.7 in Germany. A preliminary injunction requires significant proof that the claims of infringement are winnable. Thus it seems likely that the German court will also ban the Tab 10.1's diminutive brethren. Such a ruling would extend the above principles to all sizes of tablets.
II. Apple Granted Effective Monopoly in Europe's Third Largest Market
The German court made it abundantly clear that the ruling was based solely on the design. States Brueckner-Hofmann, "The crucial issue was whether the Galaxy tablet looked like the drawings registered as a design right. Also, our case had nothing to do with trademarks or patents for technology."
The Germany case was marked by controversy in which it was revealed that Apple altered the images of its competitor's design in the case filing, via a software tool like Photoshop, making them look more iPad-like. The judge in the case, however, claimed to the BBC that the actual devices were viewed in making the decision and that the altered images had no impact on the case.
Samsung is seeking an expedited appeal in Oberlandesgericht Düsseldorf (Higher Regional Court). Typically such appeals take anywhere from 2 to 6 months. In the meantime it cannot sell its 10-inch tablet in Germany.
The ruling is a drastic departure from the recent Netherlands ruling, in which a Dutch judge threw out Apple's claims that Samsung infringed on the patent, stating that those claims were categorically false. Sales of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 were briefly suspended for a minor infringement found in the scrolling mechanism of Android's Gallery app. However, they are expected to resume shortly.
Germans can of course drive to the Netherlands and buy Galaxy Tab 10.1s, but that requires a bit of a road trip. The German tablet market is estimated by Strategy Analytics analyst Neil Mawston to generate 2.4 million tablet sales in 2011. That makes it Europe's third largest tablet market behind the U.K. and France.
Apple is currently hoping to defeat its Android rivals with lawsuits in the U.S., Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Android is currently outselling Apple in smartphone sales 5-to-2, and is inching towards Apple in tablet sales.