“If she wasn’t known before, she is now,” said Florian Mueller, an intellectual-property analyst who runs the patent blog FOSS Patents. “Her decisions on these cases will be cited a lot going forward.”
For Koh, the reason for the sales ban was clear.
“Although Samsung has a right to compete, it does not have a right to compete unfairly, by flooding the market with infringing products,” Koh wrote in her opinion last month. She said Apple would be “irreparably harmed” if sales of the Galaxy Tab continued.
Now, as the case heads to a jury trial this month, all eyes are on the 43-year-old judge. Apple, with 63 percent of the market, and Samsung, with a nearly 9 percent share, rank one and two among tablet makers.
On the one hand, Koh is the ideal person to review such suits. She is an expert on intellectual-property law, having practiced patent litigation for about a decade in private practice. In 2006, as a lawyer at McDermott Will & Emery, she represented Creative Technology in a federal suit accusing Apple of infringing patents with its iPod music player. Apple countersued but ended up paying Creative $100 million for licensing fees.
On the other hand, she is a rookie judge who was appointed by President Obama in 2010. In just one year, she has taken on hundreds of cases, and she now grapples with the massive attention the tablet and smartphone patent suits have drawn from the captains of the high-tech industry.
It’s a baptism by fire, said Judge Ronald M. Whyte, a noted expert on patent law and Koh’s mentor on the District Court in San Jose. He said it is typical to see Koh working extremely long hours, cutting her vacations short for work and coming in to study cases on weekends.
“She isn’t afraid to take things head-on,” Whyte said. “She takes things very seriously.”
The case before Koh is one in an array of lawsuits playing out in courtrooms around the world as tablet and smartphone makers use patents not only to protect their ideas but also to weaken their rivals.
Apple’s push in the courts partly stems from Steve Jobs, the late chief executive of Apple, who said he was willing to declare “thermonuclear war” on his rivals to protect the iPhone and iPad, according to a biography written by Walter Isaacson.
In April 2011, Apple sued Samsung in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California for allegedly copying Apple’s products, even though Samsung was a major supplier of screens for those gadgets.