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Epic Samsung-Apple patent battle goes to California jury

An advertisement for Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S smartphone outside company headquarters in Seoul, Sept. 10, 2010.

Truth Leem/REUTERS

One of the most important patent infringement cases in the world is coming to an end.

Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. – two firms currently involved in more than 50 patent infringement suits and counter-suits on four continents – will soon find out a California jury's decision in a sprawling case that could result in billions of dollars in damages.

Lawyers for the two companies presented their closing arguments on Tuesday in a San Jose federal court, and the jury could begin deliberating as early as Wednesday. The bulk of the case between the two most profitable players in the smartphone industry rests on Apple's claim that Samsung's mobile devices are far too similar in design and appearance to the iPhone and iPad. Samsung denies the claims, and instead argues that Apple is in violation of several Samsung patents.

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There is plenty at stake for both companies. Apple is asking for almost $3-billion (U.S.) in damages related to the design patent infringements (and since some damages could be tripled if the jury finds Samsung willfully infringed on the patents, the final price tag could be even higher). Samsung is looking to establish a precedent that allows it to continue selling its popular line of smartphones in the most important market in the world – the U.S. – without fear of court-issued injunctions and bans.

But even though the jury could decide the case as early as Wednesday, some patent law experts think a speedy verdict is highly unlikely. For one thing, the jurors must decide on some 700 questions involving issues of infringement and damages related to multiple devices listed in the lawsuit.

"The question form [given to the jury] is 20 pages long and each page looks like a crossword puzzle," said patent law analyst Florian Mueller. "It's a whole matrix of issues."

The sheer volume of questions to be answered makes it less likely the jury will side entirely with one company over the other. Instead, the jury is likely to hand both companies a number of victories and defeats, which will almost certainly and immediately prompt a barrage of appeals.

Much of the attention around the case has focused on the design patents, which Apple is using as part of its claim that Samsung's mobile devices are overwhelmingly similar to its own. But while a ruling in Apple's favour could force Samsung to pay billions of dollars in damages and alter the design of some of its devices, it is unlikely to bring Samsung's profitable smartphone operations to a complete halt.

Instead, it is the portion of the court case focusing on software patents that poses a bigger long-term threat to Samsung and myriad other Apple competitors. While the design patent litigation relates exclusively to Samsung devices, the software patents on which Apple claims Samsung infringed have more to do with the Android operating system – the Google-designed software on which millions on smartphones from Samsung, Motorola and other manufacturers run. Should a jury side with Apple on that part of the case, it could pose a significant setback for all Android-based phones, which currently represent the only real competition to Apple in the smartphone market.

In the meantime, however, Samsung continues to make up ground on Apple in the smartphone race, as sales of its Galaxy line of Android phones surge. Mr. Mueller said the two companies will likely reach a settlement in all their patent infringement cases eventually. However he added that Apple hopes a series of court victories, especially in the California case, will give the company the upper hand in the long run.

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"Apple looks at this as a marathon, not a sprint. They need [the court victories] to reach tipping point in which they can dictate terms of a settlement with Samsung," he said.

"Time is on Samsung's side in the marketplace and on Apple's side in the courtroom."

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