Who would have guessed that a courtroom showdown between two technology companies would ultimately be reduced to an argument about 1960s and 1970s sci-fi?
But that’s just what has happened after Samsung resorted to an entertaining defence in a worsening legal battle to prove its tablets are not copied from Apple.
Its lawyers in California have included images of iPad like objects from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and a 1970s British television series called “The Tomorrow People” in its latest court filing.
Samsung is fighting a series of international patent suits to refute charges from Apple that its smartphones and tablets have slavishly copied the iPhone and iPad.
Wheeling out the sci-fi is meant to suggest Apple was not that original either. But the chronology is the problem. Admittedly, characters in both do use thin hand-held screens that look like iPads. But Samsung, famed as a fast-follower, came up with its devices right after Apple, not right after Kubrick and ITV.
Samsung, the world’s biggest technology company by sales, is used to patent battles. Until this year, cavalier Samsung officials would dismiss patent disputes as a nuisance that served only to enrich lawyers.
But the clash with Apple is far more threatening than anything to date, and threaten to hinder sales of hit products in rich western markets.
A court in Germany last week edged towards upholding a ruling that tablets could not be sold there (a final ruling is due on September 9). A court in the Netherlands also barred three smartphones for infringing Apple’s intellectual property.
Samsung does not need to panic yet. The German court shied away from a Europe-wide ban and the Dutch court threw out Apple’s claims on the tablet. But it’s worrying for the Koreans that things have got this far.
In a sense, Apple’s vexation is a measure of Samsung’s success. At least with the Galaxy smartphones, it produced a product that really rattled Steve Jobs.
But Samsung has two major worries. Firstly, it is a major chip supplier to Apple. If the relationship sours further, Apple may look to source more components from Taiwan. Secondly, it will have to be more cautious about being the master of catch-up. The fast-follower model has served Samsung well but patent disputes seem to be getting sharper teeth.