Unless you’ve spent the last year or so on a remote island, busy working on the International Space Station, or living under a rock for the past year or so, then you’re probably aware of legal battle between Apple and Samsung involving patents on their cellphones and tablets (if you’re not, here’s an excellent summary by Wired Magazine).

The UK IT website The Register reports that, in this battle of mutually-assured-destruction, the latest salvo from Samsung shows an iPhone prototype Apple designed in 2006 based on information published by Sony:

It's a slab! It's fab!! It's a SONY?!?

(It's a slab! It's fab!! It's a SONY?!?)

If you’re thinking “What’s the big deal? It’s just a picture, and besides, I’ve never seen a Sony cellphone that looked like that.”, this picture could actually be quite a big deal: Very simply stated, an invention can only be patented if it’s

  1. New (ie: it’s never been done before),
  2. Novel (ie: people want to buy it), and
  3. Non-obvious (ie: someone of ordinary skill wouldn’t have come up with the same result on their own).

The third criteria – “Obviousness” – is always the trickiest one. Should Samsung prove that anyone skilled in cellphone design (not just Apple) would have designed the iPhone based on the description previously released by Sony, then one or more of Apple’s patents on the iPhone’s design could be declared invalid, allowing Samsung (and, anyone else) to use the “invention”.

Now, I don’t expect this one picture to be the coup-de-grace for Samsung.  Having worked for patent attorneys on a number of patent invalidity cases, I know this is just the latest round in a legal battle where Apple and Samsung will each try to prove the other copied one or more of their respective patented inventions by painstakingly comparing every word of each patent in question to every detail of the other’s accused products and corresponding software. This picture only relates to one of thirteen patents being defended in the courts – seven owned by Apple and six owned by Samsung.

Considering there’s at least US$2.5 BILLION dollars at stake (plus legal fees and possible unknown future licensing fees), it’s a battle that could possibly last for months.

Update: Appleinsider reports Apple has responded to Samsung by showing an iPhone concept from August 2005, codenamed “Purple”. Expect this back-and-forth to continue until one of them cannot “get behind” the other by showing an earlier design concept.

Note: This article contains trademarks and/or copyrights of Apple, Inc. and/or Samsung, which this Author acknowledges.

Thanks for reading!

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