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Will Apple's wedge patent be bad news for ultrabook manufacturers?

Apple this week earned a patent on its distinctive laptop teardrop concept, which could mean hard times ahead for PC makers in the business of building slim ultrabook laptops, many of which resemble the MacBook Air wedge blueprint.

Apple's patent - D661,296 S - is described as "the ornamental design for an electronic device," and includes drawings of the entire product, defined by solid lines.

The patent features little written explanation, leaving a number of drawings to do the talking. To determine infringement, courts look at whether "an ordinary observer" can see substantial similarities in overall appearance, patent lawyer Rich Goldstein of Goldstein Law Offices told PCMag.

"Keeping in mind, of course, that laptops, by their nature, already will look similar," Goldstein said. "So the test actually requires that this 'ordinary observer' already have in mind the 'prior art,'" he said.

The patent's photos distinctly focus on the overall external wedge shape of the notebook, dismissing details like the rear contour, hinge, side ports and feet, allowing the claim to cover a broader spectrum, Goldstein said.

Patent wars could potentially be waged if Apple decides to wave its new claim around, stomping its feet over products like the Asus UX31 or Dell XPS 13 ultrabooks. The lack of content could give the patent more power, Apple Insider said, because it does not specifically limit the scope of Apple's design definitions.

Whether a company will bring an infringement lawsuit depends on a lot of factors, Goldstein said. Often companies will use a sort-of bartering system called cross licensing to borrow a piece of intellectual property from another organization, without taking the issue to court.

"The question is whether Apple will take kindly to someone coming this close to their [product design]," Goldstein said.

In his second-ever public interview during last month's D10 Conference in California, Apple CEO Tim Cook said, "we can't take all our energy and all our care and finish the painting and have someone else put their name on it," though he called patent wars "maddening, a waste and a time-suck."

Apple did not respond to a request for comment about possible patent lawsuits.

The patent, which Apple applied for on 1 July 2011, was granted on 5 June, and will be in place for 14 years.