Supreme Court Upholds Apple’s Design Patents

In perhaps one of the largest patent infringement suit in the history of intellectual property, the US Supreme Court rendered a decision against Samsung in the famous Apple v. Samsung lawsuit.1 Apple Inc. first filed a suit against Samsung in 2011 alleging infringement of Apple’s intellectual property in the design and utility of their iPhones and iPads.2 Specifically, Apple contended that Samsung infringed four design patents on how their phones and tablets look, and three utility patents on how their devices work.3 Apple won on design patent infringement.

Thanks to Apple’s design patents, the reason Samsung is required to pay the exorbitant damages award of $548 million is due to their use of the rounded colorful icons, the pinch-to-zoom feature, one-finger and two-finger scrolling and the “bounce back” effect.4 This is due to the protection afforded a type of patent known as a design patent, first awarded in the US in 1842.5 This type of patent protects ornamental designs – the form of a device rather than its function.6

Of course, no one can argue that Samsung copied Apple devices completely. There are consistent differences between Samsung and Apple phones, so much so that people are almost religious in their dislike for one over the other. However, since design patents are able to cover small portions of a whole, companies like Apple are able to patent something as seemingly meaningless as their icons, and companies like Samsung could be considered to infringe on those patents even if they have not done so for the entire device.7 In fact, the jury found across the board that Samsung infringed on Apple’s patents, quickly burying Samsung’s countersuit that Apple had infringed on some of its patents.8

This finding and award will make it incredibly difficult for any company to mimic Apple’s products – and even beyond the tech world, make it difficult for similarities with any design patent in any field. The very particular degree of protection afforded to patent applications makes for an interesting legal environment in light of Apple’s design patent. Normally the appearance of any given product is given protection through trademark laws if it comes to represent that product, or copyright protection for things that are solely appearance, not function-related. Now that design patents are in the mix, courts will have to find a balance and a distinction between what constitutes as a trademark issue and what should be allowed a patent. In today’s world especially, the design of any particular product is extremely valuable to its identity and value in the market. Apple products are no exception. People flock to these gadgets in large part because of the way that they look: simple, sleek, and futuristic.

In the tech world, the decision poses a new turn in the appearance and design of smartphones and tablets created to compete with Apple. Other products will either have clumsier interfaces, create stealthy design changes to maneuver the patents claimed by Apple, or come up with revolutionary design interfaces altogether. Whatever the case may be, the change in the smartphone industry will bring about fascinating new technology – a new generation of smartphone.

  1. Adam Liptak, Supreme Court to Hear Samsung Appeal on Apple Patent Award, N.Y. Times (Mar. 21, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/technology/supreme-court-to-hear-samsung-appeal-on-apple-patent-award.html.
  2.  Connie Guglielmo, The Apple v. Samsung Patent Dispute: 20 Talking Points, Forbes (Aug. 21, 2012), http://www.forbes.com/sites/connieguglielmo/2012/08/21/the-apple-vs-samsung-patent-dispute-20-talking-points/#4cf9fe4e28cd.
  3. Id.
  4. Adam Liptak, Supreme Court to Hear Samsung Appeal on Apple Patent Award, N.Y. Times (Mar. 21, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/technology/supreme-court-to-hear-samsung-appeal-on-apple-patent-award.html.
  5. Mark Wilson, The Bizarre Patent History Behind the Apple v. Samsung Battle, FastCoDesign (Aug. 11, 2016), https://www.fastcodesign.com/3062728/the-bizarre-patent-cases-that-could-make-apple-399-million.
  6. Id.
  7. Id.
  8.  Nick Wingfield, Jury Awards $1 Billion to Apple in Samsung Patent Case, N.Y. Times (Aug. 24, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/25/technology/jury-reaches-decision-in-apple-samsung-patent-trial.html.

Author: saval Desai

Saval Desai is a 2L interested in patent law. She enjoys traveling, literature, movies, television, and coffee.