BERLIN – A year after Samsung Electronics was humiliated by Apple forcing it to remove a tablet on display at the Berlin IFA fair, the worlds biggest consumer-electronics companies are racing to avoid similar gaffes.
Makers of mobile phones, computers and television sets have registered a record number of rights with German authorities this year to weed out imitations, said Claudia Rossow-Scholl, a customs officer who has worked at the annual gathering since 2005. Exhibitors have also taken licenses for more inventions than ever from peers as they seek to avoid their devices being drawn into scrutiny, she said.
Samsung, Sony and Acer are among companies preparing to show their wares at Europes largest consumer-electronics fair, which generated $4.6 billion in orders last year. The event kicked off last week as makers are still digesting Apples $1 billion patent victory against Samsung, a verdict that may lead to a U.S. sales ban of some of the South Korean companys phones.
There are rights holders who approach us ahead of the show and say, have a look at this or that rival product, Rossow-Scholl said in an interview after weeks of reviewing gadgets that are delivered to Berlin to be displayed, declining to name specific manufacturers. Companies have become a lot more watchful.
Germany is a hotspot for technology-patent litigation. While companies including Googles Motorola Mobility unit, Microsoft, Apple and Samsung have sued each other around the globe, one of the focus jurisdictions is Germany because its courts allow for swift action and cover an important market for mobile devices.
Following a decision by a Dusseldorf court last August in favor of Apple to temporarily ban the sale of Samsungs Galaxy 10.1 tablet in Germany, Suwon, South Korea-based Samsung redesigned the device by relocating the speaker and changing the shape. The smaller 7.7 model was removed a few weeks later during IFA after Apple won an injunction.
Device-makers are under pressure to woo customers with machines that appeal to the masses while also having to dedicate large development teams to differentiating their designs. Profit margins are being squeezed as the economic slowdown hurts demand, be it in the fast-growing $219 billion smartphone market, or the laptop and television markets.
Samsung, the losing party in last months U.S. verdict, is set to unveil new products at IFA as it searches for a response to the ruling against its phones and tablets running the Android operating system. The company plans to show devices with Microsofts new Windows 8 software, according to a person familiar with the plan.
Samsung will also display the next version of its Galaxy Note tablet, which sold more than 10 million units in less than a year, the person said, asking not to be identified because the plans are confidential.
Franziska Heuer, a spokeswoman for Samsung in Germany, declined to comment on the companys legal strategy for IFA. Sally Osman, a spokeswoman for Tokyo-based Sony, declined to comment on any implications from the Apple ruling. A representative in Germany for Taipei-based Acer also declined to comment.
Very-high-definition TVs from LG Electronics and Toshiba were also to be among products on display at the event, which attracted 240,000 visitors last year, according to the the events organizers. This years IFA started Friday.
About one out of 20 devices that pass through customs are set aside by officers for closer inspection by the company that claims the patent violation, according to customs officials. Such inspections can take about a week and some machines miss the exhibition because of the delay, Rossow-Scholl said.
If customs officials are convinced that infringement is involved, they will destroy the gadgets.
The tools used to render them unusable range from hammers to forklifts.
To scout for any hardware that may be infringing a patent and hasnt been caught by customs, companies send intellectual-property lawyers, such as Magnus Hirsch from SKW Schwarz Rechtsanwaelte in Frankfurt, around the fair booths.
Its possible to win and enforce an injunction within a day, he said.
With the help of the police or the customs, you get the products taken right off the booth, Hirsch said. Sometimes you can even get the complete booth closed down, but youll achieve that only in extreme cases of infringements.