On the surface it all seems so absurd. Several days ago, various news outlets reported that LG Display (not to be confused with LG Electronics) asked for a ban on the manufacture and domestic sales of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1, the tablet we weren’t too impressed with back in August, which we reviewed in September, and which has failed to set the market on fire in the intervening months. How did this mediocre product get under the skin of Samsung’s home-soil competitor? By allegedly breaching patents involving the angles at which the screen can be viewed.
The LG-Samsung beef goes way back, and folks more knowledgeable on the matter than I say this latest spat has its roots in even-earlier battles in the patent war between the companies (see source links at bottom for more in-depth exploration). That’s no surprise, given the predilection of massive mega-corporations to use lawsuits as weapons in their never-ending battle for expansion at all costs. Patent lawsuits are, unfortunately, just another part of the landscape.
What makes this one unique is that, going by most headlines, it almost looks like the idea of viewing angles itself is patentable. And to someone without serious interest in or familiarity with the patent system (read: to most of humanity) that might seem plausible. Even I, someone who dictated patent cases aloud for six hours a day for four years, was almost immediately caught up in a wave of fear and mild disgust when this story broke. They can’t do that, I thought, can they?
Fortunately, the answer is no: according to my in-depth research in the internet’s most trustworthy corners, you still can’t patent an idea. So everyone can rest easy knowing that the concept of “viewing angles” is not under the lock and key of a lone electronics manufacturer.
However, you can patent an “invention.” Indeed, that’s the whole idea. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, a copy of which I still have sitting around the house thanks to the aforementioned legal-voiceover gig, a patent is defined in America as “the right to exclude others from making, using, marketing, selling, offering for sale, or importing an invention for a specified period (20 years), granted by the federal government to the inventor if the device or process is novel, useful, and nonobvious.”
And that’s exactly what LG is trying to defend with its latest legal maneuver: an invention. Specifically, the display technologies that enable such impressive viewing angles on mobile devices, some of which we saw in action on the surprisingly impressive Optimus G. LG also said it would demand a penalty of 1 billion won (about US$940,000) for each day the Note 10.1 remains on sale domestically. Samsung responded with the time-honored response of all megacorporations that fall under suit, denying any wrongdoing, calling the claims “unjustified,” and generally making an irritated “are you serious?” face.
Like any “good” patent dispute, this one is likely to stretch out for months and months of fighting, mudslinging, and general discontent, finally culminating in a licensing arrangement or, if things get really spicy, a geographic ban on sales of certain Samsung products. This case could have serious implications for the future of both companies, if Samsung turns out to be wrong in its “you got nothing on us” stance.
To me, the real story here lies in the feelings engendered by the story. With many news sources highlighting displays and even “viewing angles” right in their headlines, the conversation in comment sections has turned to the question posed by our own headline up top: should manufacturers be able to patent something as intangible as a viewing angle? Thankfully, the law says no, and many agree that would be a horrible idea. But with the patent system being used as a weapon more and more frequently in corporate turf wars, it seems that many readers -especially the ones who read the headline and jump straight to the comments section- have no trouble believing that in today’s world, a company can indeed patent an idea.
That misconception is unfortunate, but it’s understandable given the current state of litigiousness in corporate culture. While I’m grateful that LG and other corporations are barred from suing others on the basis of a non-unique concept, I’m saddened that we’re really not all that far from such a reality.
Granted, this is the perspective of a non-lawyer, but it seems to me that the division between suing over a concept and suing over a concept-enabling technology is fuzzy enough that we’ve already got one foot over the line anyway. As long as patents can continue to be used as weapons of war, rather than in furtherance of the protective function they were originally designed for, it’s easy to see why some are cynical enough to believe that you can, indeed, patent a viewing angle. And regardless of how this particular case turns out, that’s sad.
Original story via Engadget