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Unredacted court filings show Samsung didn't copy the iPhone

Newly unsealed court documents from Apple and Samsung's recent US patent trial offer a different spin on the notion that the South Korean tech giant was out to "copy" the iPhone.

In August, a jury in San Jose, California found that Samsung had wilfully infringed on a number of Apple design and utility patents with a variety of its devices, including the Galaxy S2, resulting in an order that Samsung pay Apple more than $1 billion (over £620m) in damages.

The case dates back to April 2011, when Apple sued Samsung, accusing it of "slavishly" copying the iPhone and iPad with its Galaxy lineup of devices. Samsung counter-sued and the case has since spread to dozens of courts around the globe. Apple has had mixed success in getting the Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy Tab banned in various regions, but won on five out of six patent infringement claims in California - though Samsung is disputing the result on the basis of jury bias and asking for a re-trial.

Key evidence presented by Apple in that trial concerned a reported talk given by a Samsung executive to mobile device designers, in which he allegedly suggested they copy Apple's iPhone outright.

A lot of ink was spilled about how damning some snippets from that talk were for Samsung, but the unredacted filings seem to offer a lot more context.

They may even support the notion, contra Apple, that Samsung's leadership, though mightily impressed by the iPhone, never sought to copy the groundbreaking device and instead counselled "creativity" in the design of the company's handsets.

The legal blog Groklaw, which pored over "a mountain of filings" that were recently unredacted by the judge in the Apple-Samsung case (Ed. note: cheers for that, Groklaw), posted the relevant passages from the newly unsealed documents.

"Heaven and Earth"

The filing at issue, Groklaw reported, contains notes by different participants in a February 2010 "Samsung pep rally" held in South Korea, which brought together various departments, including the mobile design team. A key passage, which many in the media took to imply that the Samsung executive leading the meeting was exhorting designers to copy the iPhone, looks different when seen in the context of the exec's full presentation.

"I hear things like this: Let's make something like the iPhone. When everybody (both consumers and the industry) talk about UX [user experience], they weigh it against the iPhone. The iPhone has become the standard. That's how things are already."

The unsealed court documents attributed that quote - which was translated from Korean - to the head of Samsung's mobile division, but did not name him specifically. JK Shin is currently Samsung's mobile chief. Another passage quotes the executive as comparing the experience of using the iPhone with using one of Samsung's Omnia phones as the "difference between Heaven and Earth."

Quotes like those, taken out of context, may give the impression that Samsung was prepared to simply copy its rival's device to catch up, according to the legal experts. But they counter that it's important to also consider the executive's prior and subsequent exhortations to the mobile design team as transcribed in the unredacted filing, in which he urged them to be creative and to develop a "UX that flows like water" and "can be used by anyone from six-year-olds to senior citizens," as well as his insistence on building a bigger screen for Samsung smartphones as a differentiator from, presumably, the iPhone and other handsets.

Read in full, the argument goes, this executive was merely pointing out that the iPhone was the gold standard of smartphones, not something to simply mimic as a practical matter but rather as an example of a type of product Samsung should be striving to make.

Carrier burden

Observers believe that Samsung's appeal will focus not only on jury misconduct, but also the exclusion by the judge of certain evidence Samsung's lawyers sought to present to the jury.

Also of interest, immediately prior to talking about the impressiveness of the iPhone as a product, the executive - likely Shin - offered up a complaint about Apple's stranglehold on certain carrier relationships.

"All the carriers tell me, 'Hey J.K.!' Your phones have great technological prowess and everything's great. But it's hard to sell them as high-end phones. ... That's because we spent all of our subsidy funds on the iPhone and can't give a penny in subsidy to your phones, so of course your phones will be expensive and then it follows that they won't sell," the executive ventured.

Sour grapes or an insight into one of the ingredients of Apple's runaway success that rarely gets mentioned?