The Supreme Court will on Oct. 11 weigh in on a longstanding feud between Samsung and Apple, determining how much of a $399 million patent-infringement award Samsung actually owes to Apple.
In 2012, after three years of legal back-and-forth, in a number of countries, a U.S. court ordered Samsung to pay $930 million to Apple for infringing on patents related to smartphone design, including the use and layout of icons on the Home screen. That amount was lowered from an earlier award of $1.05 billion.
Samsung is challenging a $399 million portion of the $930 million, arguing that it amounts to the total profits it earned on the 11 smartphones found to infringe on Apple designs.
More specifically, design patents protect the way a thing looks, while utility patents protect the way it works; three Samsung phones were found to have infringed on the look of the iPhone. Samsung will argue that it's unfair to make it hand over its entire profits on a superficial aspect of its devices, and that such a ruling would ultimately hurt innovation.
Attorneys for Samsung have likened the decision to making an automaker turn over the full profits for a car, for infringing on cup holder design, while others have argued that the cup-holder analogy isn't accurate.
In a "friends of the court" filing on behalf of Apple, industrial design professionals note that Article 289 in the U.S. Patent Code "authorizes a patent owner to recover an infringer's total profit from an infringing article of manufacture."
They continued, "In determining the relevant 'article of manufacture,' the jury should consider the scope of the claimed design [and] the extent to which the design determines the appearance of the product as a whole."
They then offered the example of a car company intentionally copying the design patent for a Volkswagen Beetle, and how, were a "reasonable observer" to buy the car believing it to be a Beetle, "Volkswagen would be entitled only to the profits that the counterfeiter earned on the car's outer body shell, not on the car itself."
A Bloomberg report points out that the examination of design patents isn't exactly in the wheelhouse of the current Supreme Court. The last time the Court considered the ornamental look of an object, it was hearing "disputes involving spoon handles in the 1870s and carpets in the 1890s."
Other Worries at Apple and Samsung
Apple and Samsung each have other pressing legal matters keeping them busy.
On Oct. 7, Apple won a separate patent-infringement ruling, when a U.S. appeals court upheld a $119.6 million verdict that a three-judge panel threw out in February.
Apple is also fighting European Union regulators who claim the company owes $14.5 billion in back taxes.
And Samsung, after multiple Galaxy Note7 devices caught fire, is permanently halting production of the handsets.