In the ultimate buzzkill immediately following Google I/O, U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh dealt Samsung and Google a serious blow late last Friday, ordering an injunction against the sale of Galaxy Nexus handsets in addition to the one she issued against Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 last Tuesday. The timing of the decision by Koh is especially ironic in that, in addition to coming on the heels of Google’s iconic I/O convention, her decision also came on the iPhone’s 5th birthday, as if wrapped up and tied with a neat little bow just for Apple. This unfortunate turn of events has left many scratching their heads and wondering why Apple was awarded this injunction.
The Technology in Question
While the Galaxy Tab 10.1 injunction focuses on the controversial “look and feel” features that Samsung allegedly “slavishly copied” from Apple, the more serious injunction against the Galaxy Nexus is centered on a software patent. While Apple actually accused Samsung of infringing on four patents with its Galaxy Nexus, Judge Koh restricted the injunction to the “unified search” (Siri) patent.
Unified Search Explained
Awarded to Apple in December 2011 (after Apple filed in 2004), the “unified search” patent covers the combining of search results from your local computer (which, for the purposes of this case, means your Galaxy Nexus) with Web-based search results. For example, a search for “angry birds” on your Galaxy Nexus would include apps stored on your phone in addition to results on the Web. The idea is that the technology that is used to bring relevant results to your Web searches can also be applied to searches for information stored on your computer. Apple first announced this technology at the WWDC conference in June 2004, and released it as the “Spotlight” feature in Mac OSX 10.4 (Tiger) in April 2005.
Spotlight on Siri
So, why is this patent commonly referred to nowadays as the “Siri” patent? The “Siri” feature in iOS 5 uses the same underlying technology that Spotlight does on Mac OSX. This technology is also what Apple accused Samsung and Google of using for the search widget featured front-and-center on your Galaxy Nexus homescreen (for those of you who use the stock launcher with the stock widgets). It is important to note that no final decision has been made as to whether Samsung and Google actually infringed on the Siri patent, but the likelihood that they will be found to have infringed on this patent is part of the reason Koh issued the preliminary injunction banning sales of the Galaxy Nexus. With that said, I will now explain the legal issues that have a bearing on this injunction.
Legal Issues in Question
As I pointed out earlier, Apple actually accused Samsung and Google of violating four patents with the Galaxy Nexus, so you might be wondering what the other patents are for, and why they also aren’t included as a basis for the injunction. You might also be wondering why Judge Koh ordered a ban on sales of the Galaxy Nexus simply because Samsung and Google might have infringed upon Apple’s search patent, or whether there were any other legal issues involved.
The other patents Apple accused Samsung and Google of infringing upon are as follows, according to Florian Mueller of FOSSpatents:
- The infamous “data tapping” patent in which your phone recognizes a string of text displayed on your screen as a phone number, an address, a URL, etc. and performs a corresponding action when you tap on it. For example, tapping on a string recognized by your smartphone as a phone number will cause a dialog to appear asking you whether you want to dial that number or store it in your contact list.
- The “slide to unlock” patent in which your phone requires a deliberate left-to-right swiping gesture after you push the phone’s unlock button to actually unlock your phone. This is obviously designed to prevent you from unlocking your phone accidentally.
- The “word recommendations” patent in which your phone will suggest words based on the first few letters you type on your phone’s virtual keyboard. This is, of course, designed to save you time in typing out the words you want to use when, for example, you want to do a search or type a message.
So why weren’t these patents also part of the preliminary injunction, even though Judge Koh ruled that Google and Samsung likely infringed upon them? While courts in other countries will issue injunctions simply because the product in question likely infringes upon the plaintiff’s patent, the U.S. court system requires that the patent holder also prove that the damages inflicted by the infringing product are so severe that monetary compensation could not provide an adequate remedy. The plaintiff must prove that the mere presence of the offending feature in a competing product will drive consumers to the rival product so much so that money alone cannot compensate for the damage done. According to Mueller, Apple failed to convince Judge Koh that the other three features in the Galaxy Nexus drive consumer demand enough to cause irreparable harm.
With respect to the other three patents at issue in this context — slide-to-unlock, data tapping and autocorrect –, Judge Koh was not convinced that those features drive consumer demand and that Samsung’s likely infringement causes irreparable harm.
– Florian Mueller, FOSSpatents