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Samsung Galaxy Tab – an early Christmas present for consumers, but still not crunch time for Apple

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 could be in Australian shops by tomorrow. Robert Vos/ANP

Santa has arrived early this year, with good news for consumers, lawyers, journalists and people who wonder about the legitimacy of Australian patent law.

Yesterday, the Australian Federal Court released its decision regarding an appeal by Samsung regarding its dispute with Apple over patents at the heart of touchpad devices. Those devices include Apple’s iPad and a range of tablet computers, currently “must-haves” for people looking to fill the Christmas stockings or just upgrading from a traditional laptop.

This marks the latest development in an ongoing battle between the companies that is being played out in courts across the globe, that began with accusations from Apple that Samsung had “slavishly” copied iPod and iPad designs.

What does it mean?

The decision, in essence, means Samsung can begin sales of its Galaxy Tab 10.1 in Australia as of tomorrow, December 2. Samsung had planned to scrap Australian sales of the newest Galaxy tablet if it couldn’t meet the Christmas shopping season. Missing Christmas would render the device “dead”, the company’s lawyer Neil Young said at a hearing in October.

Apple has claimed Samsung is infringing its patents, in essence unfairly exploiting Apple’s innovation. The dispute has been taken to court, with Apple relying on protection under the Patents Act 1990. The act provides short-term protection – a non-renewable 20 years – for an individual or corporate inventor.

Protection includes being able to restrict someone else from unauthorised commercial use of what has been patented. Apple’s lawyers have accordingly asked courts in Australia and overseas to stop Samsung selling devices claimed to infringe Apple’s patents. Samsung has disputed the validity of those patents and referred to patents of its own claimed to have been infringed by Apple.

A blow for Apple

As with much commercial law, yesterday’s decision did not occur in isolation. Earlier this year, a single judge of the Federal Court granted Apple an injunction stopping Samsung from selling devices that allegedly infringed Apple’s patents. That restriction was temporary, pending the court’s consideration of conflicting claims made by the two competitors.

The rationale at Apple is that the company would suffer financial loss if Samsung’s products appeared in the shops in the busiest retail season of the year.

On appeal, the full court has overturned that restriction. It has allowed Samsung to get its products into the market, subject to a record-keeping that will allow Apple to gain compensation if the court eventually decides that Apple’s patents are valid and have been infringed by its competitor.

The court thus has not recognised Apple or Samsung as having exclusive rights to any/all touchpad technology. Yesterday’s decision was essentially procedural, although high stakes. It’s another battle in the “tablet wars” rather than the final victory for either side.

Winners and losers

It looks likely, in any case, that Samsung’s Galaxy tablets will be in the shops before Christmas. The news is of course good for lawyers. Some will be collecting fees for their expertise and hard work in the dispute. Others will be busy advising clients about the implications of yesterday’s decision. For lawyers – and legal academics – it’s business as usual.

The decision is also good news for journalists, as it provides more headlines about a subject that’s close to the hearts – or just the hip pockets – of many consumers. That reporting tells readers something about how ordinary Australians discover and understand – or misunderstand – the law.

For patent lawyers, academics and policymakers the decision is less exciting than recent disputes on pharmaceuticals and medical devices that haven’t grabbed the attention of the mass media.

Courts resolve disagreements about patents and other intellectual property every week. Few of those disagreements are deemed newsworthy. Fewer still are really understood by journalists and their audiences.

But the Samsung decision is also good news for people who wonder whether patent law has gone off the rails. What we’ve seen in the Samsung/Apple dispute is two large corporations seeking to protect their innovation. There’s a lot of money at stake, along with a lot of creativity.

Back to court

Australian judges have responded quickly and intelligently. The courts have explicitly based their decisions on perceptions of community benefit and on a coherent interpretation of what the national Parliament, through the Patents Act 1990, wants the law to do. The latest decision shows that patent law is working, and working well.

Where does the dispute go from here? The answer, of course, is back to court. Apple has until 4pm tomorrow to launch a High Court appeal, after which there’ll be a decision on the merits of arguments by Apple and Samsung about the specific patents.

That process is deeply traditional: the current dispute is reminiscent of now-forgotten appearances in Australian and overseas courts during the 1890s and 1920s about patent protection for things we now take for granted: pharmaceuticals, plastics, electrical components, lifts, escalators, plumbing, medical equipment, brassieres.

Stay tuned for the next battle.

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