Apple v. Samsung – Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court has decided one of the most contentious ongoing legal battles, Samsung Electronics v. Apple, No. 15-777, slip op. (Dec. 6, 2016). On October 11, 2016, the two companies faced off on how much of a $399 million patent infringement award Samsung must pay. Samsung argued that the damages awarded in the case should be greatly reduced to just the profits attributable to the parts that infringed upon Apple’s patents, instead of profits based on the entire phone.

The underlying statute, 35 U.S.C. § 289, states that any person who applies a patented design “to any article of manufacture” is “liable . . . to the extent of his total profit.” The question at issue—one that the high court had not yet interpreted before this case—is the definition of “total profit”: Should the patent holder be entitled to damages based on profits from the entire device, or only profits attributable to the infringing parts?

The Federal Circuit had upheld the Northern District of California’s decision that Samsung’s product infringed Apple’s design and utility patents and diluted Apple’s trade dresses.1 The Court also upheld the district court’s damages award for the design patent infringement. The design patents were based on the design elements on the front face of the iPhone, the design features that extended to the bezel of the iPhone, and “the ornamental design for a graphical user interface for a display screen or portion thereof.” These elements served as the bases for the overall look of the first-generation iPhone in 2007, which, at the time, changed the way other companies began designing their phones. On appeal, Samsung relied on a basic causation argument that Apple had failed to establish that infringement of its limited design patents resulted in any Samsung sales or profits. The Federal Circuit rejected this argument, instead expressly holding that based on the statutory language and prior case law, Section 289 expressly authorized the award of the totality of profits from the article of manufacture bearing the patented design.2 The appellate court also expressly rejected Samsung’s argument that the damages should be limited to the portion of the sales attributed to the infringing product.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari for the limited question of the meaning of Section 289. The Justices’ questioning centered on how to create a test that determines what drives the sale of a product and subsequently what profits should be attributed to such component parts. A popular analogy compared the Volkswagen Beetle to the iPhone. Justice Kagan noted that, “nobody buys a car, even a Beetle, just because they like the way it looks,” but acknowledged that the primary reason for its success could be because of its design. Samsung argued that determining that a company is permitted damages based on total profit for infringing a narrow design patent could produce an absurd result. Samsung argued that, for example, if someone was found to infringe a design patent for a cup holder in a car, to permit them total profits on the sale of the whole car would be absurd.

On December 6, 2016, Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court, holding that the relevant “article of manufacture” for a Section 289 damage award should not be based on the end product sold to the consumer, but rather may be based only on a component of the product. Samsung Electronics v. Apple, No. 15-777, slip op. at 6.  Rejecting the Federal Circuit’s holding that “components of the infringing smartphones could not be the relevant article of manufacture because consumers could not purchase those components separately from the smartphones,” id. at 7-8, the Supreme Court instead held that “the ‘total profit’ for which Section 289 makes an infringer liable is thus all of the profit made from the prohibited conduct, that is, from the manufacture or sale of the ‘article of manufacture’ to which [the patented] design or colorable imitation has been applied,” id. at 5. To determine the calculations the high court created a two-part test: (1) identify the “articles of manufacture” to which the infringed design has been applied; and (2) calculate the infringer’s total profit made on that article of manufacture. Id. However, the Court declined to engage in any analysis of the two-part test and did not provide any guidance to district courts or the Federal Circuit on how to implement the test. Id. at 8. Thus, this area of law will continue to be shaped as the lower courts attempt to analyze damages under Section 289 with the new two-part test.

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1 Apple Inc. v. Samsung Elecs. Co., 786 F.3d 983 (Fed. Cir. 2015).
2 Design patent infringement has long required a different calculation of damages than utility patent infringement. To calculate damages for infringement of utility patents, causation is required to be proved and damages are limited to lost profits caused by the infringement, whereas for infringement of design patents, damages equal to whole products sold were awarded. Section 284 states, “upon finding for the claimant the court shall award the claimant damages adequate to compensate for the infringement, but in no event less than a reasonably royalty for the use made of the invention by the infringer, together with interest and costs as fixed by the court.” 35 U.S.C. § 284.

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