Apple v Samsung: The Design Patent Debate Continues

18 Oct 2016

It has been hard not to notice the rivalry between Apple and Samsung in recent years, with both companies competing to release the most innovative and popular smartphones. In 2015 Samsung was ordered to pay $549m (£362m) damages to Apple, after the court found in favour of Apple that Samsung had infringed three of its design patents related to the design of the iPhone:

  • D618,677: A black rectangle with rounded corners.
  • D593,087: The bezel on surrounding rim.
  • D604,305: A colourful grid of 16 icons.

The latest Apple v Samsung lawsuit began on 11 October 2016 in America’s Supreme Court,  with a decision likely to be made in the summer of 2017. Whether or not Samsung infringed Apple’s patents is not being questioned, however, Samsung is arguing that it should be given back at least $399m of the damages paid to Apple. This is based on the argument that the damages awarded should have been the profits from the parts of the phone that infringed Apple’s patents, rather than the profit of the entire phone.

The important question that the Supreme Court must answer is how consumers choose which smartphone to purchase. Is it down to the design of the outside and how it looks, or the inside and how it functions? This will be the first decision made by the Supreme Court in relation to Design Patents in recent years, the focus to date having been on Utility Patents which cover how an invention works, rather than the design.

The law currently dictates that when claiming damages from infringed design patents, companies are ordered to pay the entirety of the profits from the product using the infringed design patent. This stems back to 129 years ago, whereby it was introduced in an attempt to protect the design of rugs.

Samsung is claiming that the law is outdated and does not translate to technologically complex products such as, in this case, smartphones. The basis of Samsung’s claim is that although the design of a rug could be considered the essential element of its success, a smartphone is more complex. Consequently, although the design is important, it is not the only factor to take into consideration as arguably it is what is on the inside of the phone that causes a consumer to buy it.

On the other side, Apple is arguing that it was the iconic design of the iPhone that caused its success. Therefore, if Samsung ‘stole’ the design, then all of the profits should be Apple's. Noreen Krall, Apple’s chief litigation officer, stated "We firmly believe that strong design patent protection spurs creativity and innovation. And that’s why we’ve defended ourselves against those who steal our ideas."

The significance of design is clear in our consumer culture. Design patents can be worth huge sums of money, and in the upcoming months we will see what value the Supreme Court attributes to this in damages.

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