Jack Ellis

Samsung has filed suit against Dyson in the Seoul Central District Court and is seeking 10 billion won (around US$9.4 million) in compensation because, it states, it has suffered reputational damage as a result of “groundless” patent infringement claims made by the UK technology company.

A spokesperson for the Korean company told the Korea Times that it had launched the suit because Dyson’s “previous litigation has hurt Samsung’s corporate image” and that “Samsung’s marketing activities were negatively affected by Dyson’s groundless litigation, which is intolerable”.

Dyson sued Samsung in the UK High Court last year, asserting that the Korean company’s Motion Sync vacuum cleaner had infringed on its patent for a ‘a cleaning appliance with steering mechanism’. At the time, Dyson founder and owner Sir James Dyson, named as a co-inventor on the steering mechanism patent, described Samsung’s allegedly infringing product as looking “like a cynical rip-off”, adding: “Samsung has many patent lawyers so I find it hard not to believe that this is a deliberate or utterly reckless infringement of our patent.”

However, Dyson later dropped its lawsuit. According to the Guardian, Samsung was able to produce prior art. It would appear that whatever evidence was presented to the UK company’s legal team was enough to make them believe that their chances of winning the case had been substantially reduced.

This could count as a significant blow for Dyson, which has gained something of a reputation for forthright enforcement of its IP rights. If Samsung has indeed been able to demonstrate prior art that convinced Dyson to drop its infringement claim, then the UK company’s ability to effectively enforce its steering mechanism patent will have been permanently impaired. Withdrawing its infringement suit may have saved it a lot of time and money, and reduced the immediate risk of invalidation, but to some observers, it could look like the company has lost confidence in the strength of its right. That might provide an invitation to others to attack Dyson’s patent in the courtroom and at patent offices.

However, the PR fallout now facing Dyson - which advertises extensively about its patents - could prove to be far more damaging than its failed lawsuit. In reference to the dispute with Dyson, the Korea Times quotes a Samsung executive as saying: “Samsung is going to take a hard-line stance against patent trolls that use litigations as a marketing tool.” And because Dyson was unable to follow through on its infringement claims, Samsung has been able to deploy emotive terms such as “groundless litigation” and “patent troll” against the UK company.

Dyson reportedly made £1.2 billion (around US$2 billion) in revenue in 2012 and has invested massively in research, product development and marketing. It also possesses a reputation as an innovator and has been diligent in obtaining and enforcing IP rights to protect its internally-developed inventions. That is a far cry from the genuine ‘troll’ which acquires patents of questionable quality and asserts against multiple parties in the hope of extracting low level licensing returns.

But now that ‘troll’ and 'trolling' have become such emotive and loosely applied terms, we find ourselves in a situation where even a company such as Dyson can be labelled in that way. This may indicate that in the future we could see more of what Samsung is now doing. If that is the case, patent owners that initiate suits but then contemplate withdrawing them may face a difficult decision: are the costs saved by dropping claims outweighed by the long-term reputational harm that may come with opting not to fight a case through to its conclusion, and the risk of being labelled a troll in the court of public opinion.