By Erin Geiger Smith
NEW YORK Jan 31 The smartphone patent wars have
lit up courtrooms around the world. Next up: the smartphone case
The makers of protective cases that shield cell phones from
coffee spills and sticky-fingered toddlers are entangled in
countless lawsuits seeking to protect their designs.
The fights come as the mobile accessories market has gone
upscale with some cases made by luxury designers costing more
than the phones they cover. Some cases are billed as virtually
destruction-proof, said to protect precious electronics from
crushing blows or cresting waves.
Smartphones themselves are at the heart of a global patent
fight, with Apple Inc battling South Korean giant
Samsung Electronics Co over the design of the iPhone
But now similar fights are escalating over what swaddles the
gadgets, as the smartphone case market has become a roughly $1
billion annual industry, according to NPD Group, a market
research firm. More than 100 million Apple and Samsung phones
were shipped in the most recent quarter, making for more demand.
The damage claims in the case design fights are tiny
compared with the smartphone wars, but the lawsuits could help
spur a shakeout in a crowded market.
The biggest industry players sell their products at Apple
and AT&T Inc retail stores, as well as at retailers such
as Best Buy Co Inc. They have had success in getting
court judgments against Chinese counterfeiters and domestic
sellers of knock-offs, but the lawsuits involving one designer
against another aren't as easily resolved.
Otter Products Inc, the maker of OtterBox cases, has become
a frequent visitor to the courthouse.
The Colorado-based company has filed lawsuits in federal
court in its home state against LifeProof, also known as
Treefrog Developments Inc, and Mophie LLC for alleged patent
infringement involving waterproof cases for iPhones, iPods and
other devices. Mophie and LifeProof in court papers have denied
Otterbox and Mophie did not respond to requests for comment.
LifeProof declined to comment on pending litigation. Company
spokesman Jonathan Wegner said, however, that LifeProof has
programs in place to protect its own intellectual property.
The Ballistic Case Co, based in Florida, has also been a
repeat plaintiff. The company has sued rivals Cell-Nerds LLC and
Boxwave Corp for allegedly copying the look of its rugged "Shell
Gel" series of cases, which feature a dotted back and come in an
array of colors.
Designers invest significant resources in case styles and
deserve legal protection, said Alan Weisberg, a Ballistic
The company has sold more than $12 million worth of Shell
Gel cases, according to court documents, and they are available
at major retailers. Both Cell-Nerds and Boxwave are smaller
enterprises that sell cases online. The Shell Gel models are
priced at about $35, while similar Cell-Nerds and Boxwave cases
go for less than $10.
Earlier this month, a Miami federal judge allowed
Ballistic's case against Cell-Nerds to move forward, while the
Boxwave case is in its early stages in the same court. Ballistic
claims it has so-called "trade dress rights" to the design of
its cases and wants similar, rival products off the market.
An attorney for Cell-Nerds, Ury Fisher, said the company
does not think Ballistic has accurately described its trade
dress rights, and he noted that such cases are difficult to
prove because plaintiffs have to show their product is readily
recognizable to consumers.
An attorney for Boxwave did not respond to a request for
For patent-based lawsuits to succeed, plaintiffs will need
to prove another company is infringing their patents and may
also have to show what is innovative about their designs and
worthy of protection.
If found to infringe, some companies could be forced out of
the market, said intellectual property attorney Christopher
Carani of law firm McAndrews, Held & Malloy.
So far, however, the in-fighting among case designers does
not show signs of slowing down the industry.
Casemakers have trotted out models they say are tricked out
to withstand two tons of force or can be used to film movies
underwater. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas
where new case designs seemed to be on display everywhere, one
maker even showed off a case lined in soft orange putty that is
designed to become "rock hard" if the phone is dropped.