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Apple aims to protect brand in court fight with Samsung

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  © Reuters

SILICON VALLEY -- The world's top two smartphone makers, Apple and Samsung Electronics, have been locked in a series of bitter patent infringement disputes over the past few years.     

Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the iPhone 5 in 2012.

     Now the two tech giants have launched a new phase of the battle in a U.S. federal district court in California over alleged infringements, including Apple's claim that Samsung copied its swipe-to-unlock feature. But the arguments put forward in the latest lawsuit seem to cover old ground, raising questions over why the two companies are still in court three years after the first action was launched.

     It looks like Apple is determined to keep the fight going in order to preserve its most precious asset: its brand value. The Cupertino, California company has litigated 50 separate patent infringement cases with Samsung in 10 different countries. Apple has sued the South Korean company over alleged design-related infringements, while Samsung has accused Apple of copying of its wireless communications technology. The two companies remain embroiled in lawsuits over smartphone-related patents in Japan as well.

     The U.S. litigation, in particular, has garnered a lot of attention. Lucy Koh, a federal district court judge in San Jose, awarded Apple about $930 million in damages on March 6, finding Samsung guilty of violating the U.S. company's design and other patents. In a separate ruling, Judge Koh rejected Apple's request for a ban on the sale of certain Samsung products in the U.S.

Misdemeanor or felony

The latter finding highlights a profound disagreement between the judge and Apple over the seriousness of Samsung's patent violations. Despite the damages award and the fact that Apple appears to have the upper hand in the dispute, the company seems unsatisfied. 

     In declining to enforce the sales ban, Judge Koh appeared to view the violations less gravely than Apple. The plaintiff argued Samsung smartphones would not have sold well if they had not copied its design. The judge acknowledged the infringement, but said it was hard to believe that Samsung products would not have become popular without the technology. This makes it all but impossible for Apple to drive Samsung's products out of the smartphone market.

     Apple pressed its case, citing the difficulty of coming up with innovative products and the impact such products have on society. The company gained a measure of support among the jurors, but Judge Koh seemed less impressed.

     Samsung took advantage of this. Rather than defend itself vigorously against the charge that it stole Apple's design patents, Samsung essentially accused Apple of doing the same thing, arguing that all competitors, including Apple, borrow design ideas from one another.

Life-or-death struggle

In the second round of litigation, Apple is seeking more than $2 billion in damages from Samsung, alleging five patent infringements. Samsung's countersuit is much less ambitious, seeking just over $6 million in damages for alleged patent violations by Apple. This suggests Samsung is trying to avoid a head-on confrontation with its U.S. rival.

    There is an air of desperation in Apple's courtroom struggle. Because it is unlikely to get its way on a Samsung ban, the U.S. gadget maker can only enhance its corporate value by extracting all it can in damages from Samsung. This makes it harder for the two companies to reach a settlement.

     A senior executive with a U.S. intellectual property consultancy said there is no rational reason for Apple to continue pursuing these suits, and that the excessive damage awards it is seeking are the biggest hindrance to a settlement.

     For its part, Samsung is likely to continue its strategy of legal deflection. The tussle over intellectual property between the two information technology giants does not look as if it will end anytime soon.

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