Arguing that laws encompassing design patents at the heart of Apple’s long-running legal contest against Samsung are obsolete, attorneys for the Korean electronics giant asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to review the recent decision of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold lower district court findings that held Samsung liable for infringement of Apple iPhone patents in the design of Samsung Galaxy smart phone products. Respectively, Samsung and Apple rank as the top two providers of smart phones to the global market, with Samsung recording a 23.8% share of sales in that sector during the third quarter of 2015. Although third-quarter statistics supplied by research firm IDC depict Apple’s market share at 13.5%, Apple leads the global smart phone sector in terms of profitability.
The patent battle between Apple and Samsung originated in 2011 when Apple submitted photographs, internal Samsung memos and other evidence to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California accusing Samsung of making a “deliberate and conscious decision” to copy patented elements of the iPhone design in the Samsung Galaxy line of smart phones. A year later, the district court jury returned a verdict in favor of Apple. That decision ultimately led to a damage award of $930 million. In its ruling issued in May, the Federal Circuit pared down the damage award to $548 million, and Samsung agreed earlier this month to pay that amount to Apple with the caveat that Samsung reserved the right to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and would seek reimbursement if it succeeds.
Monday’s Supreme Court petition distinguishes between design patents—which relate to the appearance and other ornamental features of a product—and utility patents, which cover product functionality. The vast majority of patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark fall within the utility category. Legal experts say that Samsung’s petition, if accepted by the Supreme Court, would constitute the first case of its kind to be considered by the high court in a century.
Because smart phones contain thousands of technologies that combine ornamental and functional characteristics (such as rounded edges that allow for easy storage and retrieval from a coat pocket and flat screens that facilitate ease of reading), Samsung told the Supreme Court that the lower courts’ interpretation of the 1887 law pertaining to design patents and the resulting assessment of at least $399 million in damages “is not in line with modern times.” While concurring that a “patented design might be the essential feature of a spoon or rug,” Samsung emphasized that “the same is not true of smart phones, which contain countless other features that give them remarkable functionality wholly unrelated to their design.” As it took issue with the failure of U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh to instruct the jury on which parts of the iPhone design are ornamental and which parts are functional, Samsung warned the justices that the lower court rulings, if left to stand, would set a precedent “to reward design patents far beyond the value of any inventive contribution.”
The Supreme Court is expected to decide by February whether it will accept the case. Officials at Apple, meanwhile, offered no comment.