SAN FRANCISCO — Officially, it’s Apple v. Samsung Electronics in another tech patent face-off in a San Jose courtroom this week. But there is an unnamed party in the case: Google.
Apple Inc. is seeking about $2 billion in damages from Samsung Electronics Co. for selling phones and tablets that Apple says violate five of its mobile software patents. Samsung, meanwhile, says Apple violated two of its patents.
Some features in Samsung devices that Apple objects to are part of Google’s Android operating system, by far the most popular mobile system worldwide, running more than a billion devices made by many manufacturers. If Apple wins, Google could have to make changes in critical Android features, and Samsung and other Android phone makers might have to modify the software on their phones.
“Google’s been lurking in the background of all these cases because of the Android system,” said Mark P. McKenna, a professor who teaches intellectual property law at Notre Dame. “Several people have described the initial battle between Samsung and Apple as really one between Apple and Google.”
The companies declined to comment.
The current case is the second major court battle over patents between Apple and Samsung, which rode the success of Android to become the world’s biggest handset maker. Samsung lost the first case, in 2012, and was ordered to pay $930 million in damages. That’s pocket change for Apple, one of the richest companies in the world. And it hardly interfered with Samsung’s ability to sell phones; the company, based in South Korea, shipped 314 million handsets last year, according to the research firm IDC.
So this fight has to be about more than money, said James Bessen, a law lecturer at Boston University. He said that if Apple just wanted money, it would have already agreed to settle.
Still, going after Google by attacking Samsung is difficult, he said. Both Google and Samsung could alter features to avoid infringing on patents. And by the time the trial and appeals are finished, newer devices will have supplanted the products in question.
Combating Android was a cherished goal of Steve Jobs, Apple’s cofounder and chief executive, who died in 2011. He called Android a knockoff of the iPhone and told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, that he was willing to go to “thermonuclear war” to kill Android.
He also told Isaacson that Apple’s past patent lawsuit against HTC, another Android handset maker, was about Google all along. “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product,” Jobs was quoted as saying in Isaacson’s book “Steve Jobs.”
Apple’s current legal complaint aims at features that Google, not Samsung, put in Android, like the ability to tap on a phone number inside a text message to dial the number. And though Google is not a defendant, some of its executives are expected to testify.
Apple has a long history of choosing battles against what it views as copycats. In 1988, it sued Microsoft Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., claiming that software sold by the two companies, including Windows, infringed on Apple’s copyrights. After a four-year struggle, Apple lost on nearly all counts.
Apple filed its latest complaint more than two years ago, accusing Samsung of infringing on software patents involving the iPhone and iPad, including the “slide-to-unlock” feature and universal search, the ability to look up items on the device and Internet at the same time.
Samsung says Apple infringed on patents for how a photo album is organized and a method for transmitting video.