By: Tim Sparapani
The annual tech startup and innovation festival held annually in Austin, Texas known as South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) has recently ended. While all the big tech companies were there strutting their stuff along with all the companies that are trying to reimagine themselves as tech companies, the real stars of the show are the start-ups. Tens of thousands of people attend annually to find or become the next big thing, which his why I applaud the US Supreme Court for giving those strivers and innovators a win this week by deciding to hear the design patent appeal in the five year old battle between Apple and Samsung.
More about the big guys in a minute and their fight, which I’ve written about before here: http://www.wirelessweek.com/article/2016/02/us-supreme-court-should-clarify-law-design-patents. But before we get there let’s talk about what’s at stake in the case for startups and why it is so important that the Supreme Court is revisiting the lower court’s mistaken ruling.
Turns out the big things all started out as small things and they all needed a lot of luck and lots of care and feeding to grow and prosper. Most especially, they needed to not have extraordinary and unnecessary barriers put in their place. Startups are like salmon swimming upstream to spawn. The odds are already long that they will reach their goal. Any additional barrier put in their way, like a dam blocking a river, can exhaust the startup and rob it of its vitality thereby preventing it from reaching its goal. The absolute last thing that a tech startup needs is to have to – after coming up with a great idea to take to the market, struggling to raise capital, forging a team and bringing a product to the market – fight unnecessarily with an incumbent about the design of their product. But, unless the US Supreme Court steps in and reverses the lower court’s decision, that’s likely to be an all too common scenario for startups. As soon as the next exciting startups get some momentum going they are likely to face a new breed of patent trolls that could halt their progress entirely by waving about an alleged infringement of a design patent.
The long festering dispute between Apple and Samsung focuses on whether Samsung infringed design patents covering elements within Apple’s iPhone. In simplest terms, a design patent historically has been intended to protect and incentivize designers and inventors creative and innovative work. The US Federal Circuit Court of Appeals unwisely ruled in these big kids’ dispute that, despite the fact that tens of thousands of patents are jammed into every smartphone, an alleged infringement of just one design for one of many elements of the device itself can lead to extraordinary damage awards against the infringer.