Jacob Schindler

The long-running dispute over Apple’s infamous “slide to unlock” patent is one of the best known battles of the smartphone patent wars. But in China, a fight over another phone unlocking method – one that was introduced in part to avoid infringing Apple’s patented sliding method – may just be getting started. And Samsung Electronics has come out the loser in round one.

Last Sunday, a Chinese-language news site based in coastal Fujian province reported that a local company had earned a surprising and difficult victory over Korean company in a four-year-old patent infringement battle. In a first-instance decision, the Intermediate People’s Court of Fuzhou is said to have ordered Tianjin Samsung Communication Technology Co to stop the production and sale of four infringing handset models, and pay damages of 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) to the plaintiff, Fujian ETIM Information & Technology Co.

Based on a statement confirming the verdict from Fujian ETIM’s lawyers, as well as Chinese media coverage, it is unclear exactly which four Samsung devices are covered by the injunction. The lawsuit was filed after Fujian ETIM purchased infringing products in December 2012, so it is unknown whether the production and sales bans will impact on products that are still being produced or sold in China.

But we do know the technology at issue, and it is a method for unlocking a phone from its lock screen. The patent-in-suit is CN200810070756, which was applied for in 2008 and granted by SIPO in 2010. Titled “Path password input method based on contacts”, it appears to cover the method whereby phone users use a finger to trace a certain pattern across a grid of dots to unlock their phone – a technique the patent says is simpler, more secure and easier to remember than a conventional passcode. An example of the “pattern locks” used on some Samsung phones can be seen in this video.

Soon after Fujian ETIM filed the lawsuit, three Samsung subsidiaries in China filed an invalidity proceeding with SIPO’s Patent Reexamination Board. In June 2014, the patent was declared invalid. Fujian ETIM appealed, filing a patent administrative lawsuit in Beijing which made its way to the Beijing Higher People’s Court. The patent was left standing when the final judgment came out in June of this year, clearing the way for the Fuzhou court to rule on infringement.

Samsung can of course appeal this further, but there are reportedly other cases in the pipeline as well. There is a suit pending in Fuzhou against another Samsung subsidiary – Huizhou Samsung Company – in which Fujian ETIM is reportedly seeking 99.5 million yuan ($14.5 million) in damages.

In the US, the dispute over the “swipe-to-unlock” technology is still rumbling towards a conclusion. At the moment it looks as though Samsung will not be able to avoid paying a $119.6 million damage award to Apple, barring an intervention by the Supreme Court. Writing in IAM back in March, lawyer W Edward Ramage guessed that the case was unlikely to be granted certiorari given the lack of new issues of law raised in the latest appeal.

But while this variety of smartphone fight seems to be winding down in the US, the opposite may be true in China. The fact that Chinese courts will almost always grant an injunction after first instance, as in this case, means no tech company can afford to ignore that risk. As far as I can tell, this is the first mention of the dispute between Samsung and Fujian ETIM anywhere in English, which just goes to show that many outside of China probably don’t appreciate the extent of the litigation activity that is going on here, even when it involves global companies. For those who are keyed in to the China threat (and subscribe to IAM) we have just published a comprehensive guide to defending Chinese patent litigation in our latest issue, which hit shelves yesterday.