22 December, 2016

A Big Bite of the Apple - Supreme Court Decides the Fate of Design Patents

The two titans of technology, Apple and Samsung, have fought long and hard over many aspects of intellectual property law, especially ones relating to the design of the (now ancient, at least in smartphone terms) iPhone. The two companies have fought legal battles all over the world since 2011, with varying results for both parties. After a monstrous $1.05 billion award of damages to Apple in earlier cases by a jury, the matter ended up with the Supreme Court, who were destined to look at an aspect of design patents often overlooked by the judiciary, even if it was merely from a damages perspective. The Supreme Court handed down its judgment in early December.

The case of Samsung Electronics Co. v Apple Inc., dealt with design patents owned by Apple on aspects of the iPhone, in particular a black rectangular design (D618,677), the same with a bezel on a surrounding rim (D593,087), and a colourful grid of 16 icons on a black screen (D604,305). Samsung employed similar design aspects in its various smartphones (including the Galaxy S line), and Apple took them to court for infringement in the aforementioned design patents. What the Supreme Court were tasked to determine was the infringement, and subsequent award for damages for infringement, under section 289 of the US Patent Act.
The above section provides a remedy for damages when "[a] person who manufactures or sells “any article of manufacture to which [a patented] design or colorable imitation has been applied shall be liable to the owner to the extent of his total profit". While this is more straightforward in instances of whole infringement of a simple, single article, it is more difficult, as admitted by Justice Sotomayor (handing down the Court's unanimous judgment), in cases with complex, multi-component items and subsequent profits using the infringing elements.
Complexity comes with a need for introspection
What remains key is the liability for the infringing articles where the designs have been applied, which has been traditionally set at "…the extent of his total profit, but not less than $250". This then means you have to initially identify the 'article of manufacture' to which the infringed design has been applied, and then calculate the infringer's total profit made on that article of manufacture.  The Court therefore had to decide "…whether, in the case of a multicomponent product, the relevant “article of manufacture” must always be the end product sold to the consumer or whether it can also be a component of that product". This would either enable the patent holder to claim all profits made by selling the Samsung smartphones (i.e. the whole phone), or restrict the damages that can be claimed (i.e. only allowing damages for the particular designs used, and not the whole phone) by the rightsholder.

The Supreme Court left quite a bit unanswered in relation to the question of when an article of manufacture would be the whole product, or simply a component thereof, which, at least to this writer's mind, is a huge part of this matter and many others involving complex technology. Arguably, as the decision will be sent to the Federal Court for a rethink, the lower rungs will have to fill this space; however, there is a chance that an agreement will not be reached (yet again) by the lower courts, and the Supreme Court will have to address this matter in the future.

Justice Sotomayor saw that, after a simple reading of the term 'article of manufacture' that it would encompass both an individual component of a product, or the product as a whole. Design patents can be acquired for both, and while a component has to be embodied in an article, the designs can themselves only cover those components.p
The Supreme Court ended up saying very little in their judgment, and the future of design patents, especially in the smart device space, will remain very unclear. Whether the Federal Court comes up with a good test for the above remains to be seen, but this writer for one thinks the Supreme Court should've added more meat to their decision. Although they did highlight some issues with the parties' briefs, one would have concieved that some more guidance was to be given. Either way, the decision is important, and sets the scene for Apple and Samsung to compete more for the future of their devices and their designs.

Source: IPKat

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