WASHINGTON â The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear an appeal from Samsung, the Korean electronics company, on what t must pay Apple for infringing part of the design of the iPhone. In a brief supporting Samsung, companies including Google and Facebook said the legal framework governing the design patents that Samsung was held to have infringed was âout of step with modern technology.â
Design patents are far less common than utility patents, which cover how products work. Design patents address what products look like. Samsung argued that design patents are poorly suited to complex devices with many features, adding that they can give rise to disproportionate penalties.
Design patents once covered household items like spoons and fireplace grates, and a finding of infringement required the defendant to turn over all of its profits. Samsung argued that this âtotal profit ruleâ does not make sense in the digital era and would âreward design patents far beyond the value of any inventive contribution.â
The Supreme Court has not heard a design patent case in more than a century.
In December, Samsung agreed to pay Apple $ 548 million in damages in the case, but it reserved the right to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
The three design elements at issue in the case, Samsung Electronics Co. v. Apple Inc., No. 15-777, are, in Samsungâs description, âa particular black rectangular round-cornered front faceâ; âa substantially similar rectangular round-cornered front face plus the surrounding rimâ; and âa particular colorful grid of sixteen icons.â
In urging the Supreme Court not to hear the case, Apple said the justices should not reward a copycat.
âThe iPhoneâs explosive success was due in no small part to its innovative design, which included a distinctive front face and a colorful graphical user interface â features protected by U.S. design patents,â the companyâs brief said. âThe innovation and beauty of Appleâs designs were not only hailed by consumers and the press, but envied by Appleâs fiercest competitor Samsung, which by its executiveâs own admission in related litigation is a âfast followerâ rather than an innovator.â
The justices agreed to decide only one of the questions on which Samsung had sought review: âWhere a design patent is applied to only a component of a product, should an award of infringerâs profits be limited to those profits attributable to the component?â