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The battle of rounded corners

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A US federal judge has handed Apple a procedural victory in its legal spat with Samsung by ordering the Korean giant to provide Cupertino's legal team with product samples and packaging for two of its tablets and three of its phones.

The order grows out of Apple's lawsuit against Samsung for "slavishly" copying its iPhone and iPad designs, which Cupertino filed on April 11.

Samsung was not amused, and on the following Tuesday it threatened a countersuit, then made good on that threat that Friday, suing Apple in Seoul, Tokyo, and Mannheim, Germany, alleging violations of technical patents that Samsung holds in those three countries.

The presiding judge in Apple's lawsuit against Samsung, Lucy Koh, cut Cupertino some slack in her recent ruling (provided by Courthouse News), ordering Samsung to provide Apple with the materials "approximately two-and-a-half months before discovery would ordinarily become available in this case."

Koh ruled that "the Court agrees that Apple has demonstrated good cause for some, limited expedited discovery," and that Samsung must provide Apple with the "latest iterations" of product samples, packaging, and package inserts for the Galaxy Tab 8.9 and Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablets, plus the Galaxy S2, Infuse 4G, and 4G LTE (aka "Droid Charge") smartphones.

Two of those five products – the Galaxy S2 and the Infuse 4G – have just begun shipping, while the other three are still on the tarmac, preparing for takeoff. Not that they have been hidden from the public, though. The items in question are hardly closely held secrets – as Koh notes, Samsung even handed out 5,000 Galaxy Tab 10.1s on May 10, presumably referring to the freebies distributed at the Google I/O conference.

Apple's beef is that Samsung is copying the sacred Cupertinian look-and-feel. "Rather than innovate and develop its own technology and a unique Samsung style for its smart phone products and computer tablets, Samsung chose to copy Apple's technology, user interface and innovative style in these infringing products," the original lawsuit charges.

Apple also claims that Samsung changed its designs after examining the iPad and iPhone. "Even the icons in earlier versions of the Samsung smart phones looked different because they had a variety of shapes," the lawsuit reads, "and did not appear as a field of square icons with rounded corners."

Other rounded corners also showed up in the trade-dress section of Apple's lawsuit, which charged Samsung with violations "for the overall design of the product, including the rectangular shape, the rounded corners, the silver edges, the black face, and the display of sixteen colorful icons."

And so Apple petitioned the court to see what Samsung is up to next, and the court agreed – but with caveats. The most important of these is that the prototypes and packaging materials will not be seen by Apple employees – even Apple's in-house lawyers. "The expedited discovery ordered herein must be produced with the designation 'Outside Counsel Eyes Only'," the ruling reads.

Koh also denied Apple's requests to require Samsung to produce for deposition those employees who were involved in the design and marketing of the two tablets and three smartphones, and to provide Apple with "documents relating to any copying of design elements of, or attempts to design around Apple's intellectual property relating to, the iPhone 4, iPad, and iPad 2."

Speaking of that latter reference to copying design elements, Koh notes that Apple supported its argument that Samsung was "slavishly" copying the iPad 2's design by quoting a statement made by Samsung's mobile division VP Lee Don-Joo: "We will have to improve the parts [of the Galaxy Tab 10.1] that are inadequate. Apple made [the iPad 2] very thin."

Be forewarned, tablet designers. Apple apparently want to claims ownership not only of rounded corners and rectangular shapes, but also of thinness. ®

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