Patents are publicly filed, so companies can check to see if they might be infringing and need a license or a new design. The fact that Google raised the issue about these specific Apple patents with Samsung -- a company that can afford the lawyers to check -- and that Apple tried to resolve the issue with Samsung directly shows this case is not about frivolous or knee-jerk lawsuits.
Understanding the larger mobile patent war
But fighting that worthy battle has nothing to do with what's going on in the multipronged mobile patent battle that at its heart is a struggle between the Google-led Android community and the old-guard technology companies. (Apple is most public, but Microsoft and Cisco Systems are also in the fight.)
In a nutshell, the Android community has been abusing the patent system so that it can copy the innovations of others. I've explained the details of their dubious tactics before. Suffice it to say they use patents that are part of technology standards to pressure competitors, which is a fundamental violation of the principles of fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) licensing that companies agree to follow when their patents are accepted as part of a technical standard. The patent holder trades the ability to decide in each case whether it wants to license the patent and under what terms in exchange for gaining licenses from everyone who wants to use the standard.
The design patents case decided on Friday doesn't involve FRAND because none of Apple's design patents is part of a standard. Apple is free to not license them to companies like Samsung, maintaining the unique identity and behavior that defines the iPhone and iPad experience and therefore profiting from its innovation. That ability to profit encourages innovation, and is how we got the iPhone and iPad in the first place.
Why Samsung's loss is good for Android (and Samsung)
Apple's counterattack to the dubious patent practices of Samsung, Motorola Mobility, HTC, and other Android device makers has been unusually strong. Microsoft's counterattack was to negotiate licenses with most Android makers, so it now gets a cut of every device sold. That's the usual approach, which is to negotiate a deal with the alleged infringer. Apple has clearly decided this is a matter of principle to be enshrined in court decisions -- most of which it has won -- rather than be quietly settled behind closed doors.
When Apple is on a crusade, watch out. Look what happened in less than a year after Hon Hai's Foxconn plants' inhumane working conditions were exposed: The factory makes many Apple products, so Apple took the heat for allowing the poor working conditions to exist. Apple responded by forcing changes on Hon Hai that have already been validated as real. All the other Silicon Valley companies have said and apparently done nothing, though they use the same and similar plants and so perpetuated the same abuses.