Smartphone cases - Built to survive drops, floods - and lawsuits?

Thu Jan 31, 2013 11:15am EST
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By Erin Geiger Smith

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The smartphone patent wars have lit up courtrooms around the world. Next up: the smartphone case wars.

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 and iPad.

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.   Continued...

An Apple IPhone 4s and Samsung Galaxy S are seen in this illustration photo in Berlin August 27, 2012. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski