Don’t Forget to Read the Manual: Apple v. Samsung and the Challenge of Jury Instructions

A jury has enormous responsibilities. The judge decides all questions of law, using their legal expertise to interpret the problem presented by the case and determine which law or laws apply. The jury’s job is to resolve all questions of fact. Sometimes it’s simple. Is there enough evidence to show that the accused committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt? Sometimes it’s difficult. This is particularly true in patent cases. A group of ordinary people is called to reach a shared conclusion on complex technical issues. That’s not a slight to the intelligence of the jurors. These questions are challenging for the attorneys and engineers that work in the field all their lives. Thus, jury instructions become very important. Today, we will consider the jury instructions in the recent Apple v. Samsung case and some post-verdict statements by the foreman that highlight just how hard it can be to follow the directions. The case is far from over, but its eventual resolution could determine the biggest hardware supplier in the mobile gaming market.

Within jury instructions, the court sets specific parameters on what questions the panel must answer and the legal rules they must follow. For common cases, model instructions are available. There has been a lot of debate on how to tailor these rules so that the jury receives the best guidance possible. Even if they are written perfectly, there are numerous variables that are impossible to eliminate. Jurors, just like everyone else, have biases and opinions that frame the way they look at the world. They also come in with different levels of education and expertise. No one is a professional juror. Most people have things they would rather be doing, so there’s a risk that they might gloss over more complex problems to save time.

In Apple v Samsung, there were no model instructions available. This case involved a mountain of issues. Apple commands serious market share and enormous customer loyalty, but Samsung’s recent smartphone offerings have shown they’re unafraid to challenge the house Jobs built. Steve was apparently so infuriated by the November 2007 announcement of Google’s Android (the operating system for the disputed Samsung phones) that he promised “thermonuclear war” over what he considered a “stolen product.” There will be many books written about this battle, but we will focus on the jury instructions.

First, they were incredibly long: 109 pages. These had to be read aloud by the judge, which took hours. They listed roughly 700 separate questions the jurors had to answer to reach a verdict. One important detail was underlined. This jury could not include punitive damages. These damages typically come up in tort cases where the defendant did something especially terrible. To deter that type of behavior in the future, punitive damages are awarded. States have discretion on what types of cases can offer them and how high they can go. This is a contentious topic. Perhaps most infamously, it arose in Liebeck v. McDonald’s, where a woman sued the burger chain after suffering third degree burns from their coffee. That touched off a vigorous debate over tort reform: laws designed to limit civil judgments and discourage lawsuits.

But whatever your opinion is about punitive damages, they were not available in Apple v. Samsung. If the jury concluded that a patent was violated, their judgment was to put the holder in the place they would be had the infringer paid an appropriate licensing fee. Sending a message or discouraging future violators wasn’t to come into the equation. The jury instructions made this crystal clear, stating, “You should keep in mind that the damages you award are meant to compensate the patent holder and not to punish an infringer.” But recent comments by the foreman, Velvin Hogan, cast serious doubt on whether the jury internalized that rule. In a Reuters interview, Mr. Hogan said, “We wanted to make sure the message we sent was not just a slap on the wrist. We wanted to make sure it was sufficiently high to be painful, but not unreasonable.” That could easily be interpreted as intent to punish Samsung.

Mr. Hogan also made some comments on prior art that throw into question whether the jury followed their instructions. Prior art is a bedrock concept in patent law. It is all knowledge available to the public that can impact a patent’s claim of originality. To take an extreme example, let’s say you decided to sue Huffy for violating your patent on a “two wheeled rider propelled vehicle with shifting gears and handlebars.” Huffy would easily defeat your claim, because they would point to the fact that bicycles and how they work has been freely available public knowledge for over a century. This principle reins in many patent claims by asking whether the invention in question is truly an original work, or an idea that is already making the rounds.

Prior art was an important piece of the smartphone lawsuit. Which of the features available on the iPhone were wholly original, and which were concepts that others had already explored and published? But on a Bloomberg TV interview with Mr. Hogan, he made a statement that could indicate confusion on the topic. The specific item was the “bounceback” patent, dealing with the way your phone screen “bounces” when you scroll down to the end of the page. According to the foreman, what convinced him that prior art didn’t apply was that, “The software on the Apple side could not be placed into the processor on the prior art and vice versa.” But this is a misinterpretation. Prior art does not hinge on whether it can run on the same system, but instead on whether the invention has been used or even explained elsewhere.

This is not meant to suggest that the jurors in Apple v. Samsung did a bad job. Patents are an incredibly difficult subject, and equally qualified scientists can reach opposite opinions on the validity of a case. Even if the jury had followed every instruction perfectly, this case was going to be appealed. Smartphones are big business, and companies with skin in the game would logically spend large sums to settle who would decide the future of the market. Some influential legal scholars have pointed to cases like these as a sign that patent law is overdue for reform. Whatever the result, Apple v. Samsung shows just how hard these cases and their instructions can be. You can read the manual, sure, but 109 pages mean things might slip through the cracks.

Zack Bastian is an official contributor to Law of the Game. A a recent graduate of George Washington University Law, Zack works at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program and is a member of the American Intellectual Property Law Association. The opinions expressed in his columns are his own. Reach him at: zack[dawt]bastian[aat]gmail[dawt]com.

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About Zack Bastian

Zack Bastian is an official contributor to Law of the Game. A a recent graduate of George Washington University Law, Zack works at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program and is a member of the American Intellectual Property Law Association. The opinions expressed in his columns are his own. Reach him at: zack[dawt]bastian[aat]gmail[dawt]com.

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