It’s been a bad few months for Apple’s patent portfolio. In October 2012, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office preliminarily invalidated one patent that the company has successfully used against rival Samsung.
Early in December, the USPTO did the same for the so-called Steve Jobs patent, a fundamental one touch interface on mobile devices. Now there’s a third USPTO preliminary ruling against the pinch-to-zoom patent, which the Wall Street Journal called a “cornerstone” in Apple’s case against Samsung.
So, has Apple’s legal strategy fallen apart? Will it have to give up trying to exclude Samsung from key markets? Not at all is the answer that people with an MBA degree should learn to give. High quality patents are, of course, important. But so is quantity. Put the two together and you can create a powerful way to protect a business. Apple has waged a fierce war against a number of competitors, with Samsung being the chief target. The two have been in and out of course in multiple countries for years now. In August, Apple won a $1.1 billion judgment against Samsung in the U.S.:
The jury found that various Samsung products violated Apple patents covering things like the “bounce back” effect when a user scrolls to the end of a list on the iPhone and iPad, and a way to distinguish between one-finger scrolling from two-finger gestures like the pinch-to-zoom that magnifies an image. Samsung was also found to have infringed Apple patents covering the physical design of the iPhone.
The bounce-back and pinch-to-zoom are two of the patents that are undergoing serious challenge. The easy — and wrong — conclusion to make is that Apple’s legal strategy is in grave danger. Nothing is further from the truth. There are two parts to creating a strong patent portfolio.
One is strong high-quality patents that cover fundamental aspects of products or technologies. The other is quantity. Patent lawyers typically look at collections of patents, not single ones. For example, if a company has a new technology that improves solar cell efficiency, it would clearly patent that technology.But patent lawyers would build a web of protection, applying for patents to cover production methods, individual steps in every process, and everything that supports the technology.
Refinements become topics for additional patents, effectively extending the life of the initial patents. Even as it has been in court, Apple has continued to file many patent applications in the U.S. and elsewhere. Many of these have broad reach.
In addition, Apple also has many existing patents, as it has been thorough in trying to protect its position in mobile devices. When looking to protect intellectual property by patents, do try for coverage of the basics. But think more broadly about what else to protect, because you can’t count on a patent always being available.