The eight justices heard arguments in Samsung’s bid to pare back $399 million of $548 million it paid Apple in December following a 2012 jury verdict finding that it infringed Apple’s iPhone patents and copied its distinctive appearance in making the Galaxy and other competing devices.
The $399 million penalty stemmed specifically from Samsung’s violation of three Apple patents on the design of the iPhone’s rounded-corner front face, bezel and colorful grid of icons that represent programs and applications.
While the justices signalled a willingness to reduce the potentially huge penalties imposed for ripping off someone else’s patented design, some expressed skepticism over how, in practice, juries could figure out the importance of a specific design trait in a product in order to calculate damages.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said that if he were a juror he would not have a clue what to do. Several justices shrugged about how they would devise a test for lower courts and juries to use to determine design patent damages.
Samsung has contended it should not have had to turn over all its profits on phones that infringed the iPhone design patents, which the company said contributed only marginally to a complex product with thousands of patented features.
Chief Justice John Roberts said that since the patented designs involve the outer case of a smartphone and not “all the chips and wires” inside, the profits awarded should not be based on the entire price of the phone.
After the argument, Samsung’s attorney, Kathleen Sullivan, said, “We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will give a sensible and fair reading to the design patent statute. That would be a win for businesses and consumers alike.”
Design patent fights very rarely reach the Supreme Court, which had not heard such a case in more than 120 years.