Apple-Samsung settlement talks set (prematurely) for May


Philip Elmer-DeWitt is a senior editor at Fortune.

FORTUNE -- Tim Cook seemed to be putting some distance between himself and Steve Jobs during Tuesday's conference call when he was asked about Apple's (aapl) flexibility in its ongoing patent disputes with the makers of Google (goog) Android phones.

"I've always hated litigation, and I continue to hate it," he replied. "We just want people to invent their own stuff. And so if we could get to some kind of arrangement where we could be assured that's the case and a fair settlement on the stuff that's occurred, I would highly prefer to settle versus battle. But it -- the key thing is that it's very important that Apple not become the developer for the world. We need people to invent their own stuff." (Transcript)

That apparent flexibility will be put to the test in three and a half weeks when Apple and Samsung are scheduled meet at the CEO level in a San Francisco court house for two days of court-ordered settlement talks.

Judge Lucy Koh of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California ordered the conference on April 17, and now Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero has scheduled the talks for May 21-22, starting each day at 9:30 a.m. Pacific.

Cook's remarks suggest that any settlement Apple might agree to would require that Samsung remove some of the features that make its Android phones look and feel so much like iPhones.

That's more important to Apple than cash, says FOSS Patents' Florian Mueller: "What Cook said clearly shows that differentiation remains a priority objective for Apple."

At the same time, Mueller -- who has been following these court battles more closely than anyone outside the two companies' legal teams -- believes that with more than 50 lawsuits outstanding, late May is too early to expect a resolution.

"The dispute isn't ripe yet," he says. "At some point there will be a settlement, but both parties need more decisions from the courts."

For example, one of the things Magistrate Spero asked the litigants to provide was a settlement statement that includes "a candid evaluation of the parties' likelihood of prevailing on the claims and defenses" (emphasis his).

"This is wishful thinking," writes Mueller. "There's no way they would ever express even the slightest skepticism over any of their claims."

For Mueller's report on the settlement conference and his list of the outstanding cases, click here and here.

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