A few months ago, we noted that Samsung's new phones had rather odd designs... and the theory making the rounds was that, considering the ongoing worldwide fight it was in with Apple, it was trying to go out of its way to make the phones as un-Apple-like
as possible. Of course, that resulted in ugly, weirdly shaped phones.
As you may (hopefully?) know, some of the patents in the fight are "design patents" rather than utility patents. When people talk about patents, they usually
are referring to utility patents. Design patents are, in many ways, more similar to trademarks than to utility patents. But it creates odd situations where Apple gets to claim "ownership" of the concept of a rectangular device with rounded corners. It's also important to remember that design patents can't
be for functional features, but only
for design/appearance. That means that Apple has to insist that the basic design of the iPhone and iPad aren't functional at all.
As Matt Schruers highlights, that means that Apple is left in the awkward position of insisting that these basic concepts that are sort of obvious design choices to make such devices functional
both aren't functional at all and
that there are perfectly reasonable alternatives
. For example, Apple's lawyers have suggested some "alternatives" in how Samsung could have designed its devices:
“front surfaces that are not rectangular, not flat, and without rounded corners; display screens that are more square than rectangular or not rectangular at all, display screens that are not centered on the front surface of the phone...”
“overall shapes that are not rectangular with four flat sides or that do not have four rounded corners; front surfaces that are not completely flat or clear... and profiles that are not thin”.
So what would that mean? Schruers explains:
Of course. Surely consumers would happily hold a large, thick, bumpy, sharp-edged hexagonal thing up to their head. They’ll no doubt appreciate the different “ornamental” approach while reading through their opaque screen. No functional drawbacks there.
Does that even sound like an object you would willingly put in your pants? Having a device that is not an unwieldy weapon-like object is a functional feature, not an ornamental design choice. One is not going out on a limb in concluding that if the object design increases your likelihood of getting strip-searched at the airport, those are functional drawbacks, and foreclosing functional features is not the purpose of design protection.
Oh yeah, Schruers also includes this bit of prior art
to emphasize his point: