Just a week after the fifth anniversary of his untimely passing, Steve Jobs made an appearance -- at least in spirit -- at the U.S. Supreme Court. I was attending the oral argument in the patent suit between Apple and Samsung, and as I watched the arguments unfold, I was reminded several times of Mr. Jobs’ influence on our lives, the tech industry, and now the law. Here’s a quick summary of what happened.
In 2011, Apple sued Samsung, alleging that 19 Samsung cell phones infringed several of Apple’s patents. Apple ultimately prevailed, and won an award of $399 million – Samsung’s entire profits on eleven of the accused smartphones. The issue at the Supreme Court was whether the lower courts properly interpreted U.S. patent laws in awarding all of Samsung’s profits.
The patents at issue were design patents. When most people think about patents, they think about utility patents on new and useful inventions, like cancer-fighting drugs or flying cars.
Design patents, however, are different. Instead of covering useful inventions, design patents cover ornamental inventions. Most early design patents were for things like cast iron stoves. Although the technology behind different stoves may have been the same, different stovemakers went to great lengths to create cool ornamental designs for their stoves, and they lobbied for protection against copycats.
Apple asserted three design patents against Samsung -- two had Steve Jobs as an inventor and were focused on the front face of the iPhone, while a third was directed to the phone’s home screen.
Apple's case focused on three design patents on the original iPhone.
The trial court awarded $399 million – all of Samsung’s profits on the infringing phones because of a provision in the U.S. patent laws that addressed design patents. That provision states that whoever “applies the patented design…to any article of manufacture for the purpose of sale…shall be liable to the owner to the extent of his total profit.
That provision was expressly added by Congress in the late 1800s, in response to a series of court cases involving carpets. In those cases, a design patent holder successfully proved that carpet manufacturers had copied the patented design, but was awarded only six cents because they were unable to prove how much of the infringer’s profits came from the design itself, as opposed to the carpets they sold.
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