After years of arguments, the Samsung v. Apple case has finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court. At stake is hundreds of millions of dollars awarded to Apple by lower courts over Samsung's alleged theft of the iPhone's patented design features. Now, over 100 designers and educators have filed an amicus brief, coming out in support of Apple's stance that Samsung should be forced to give up all of its profits from iPhone-infringing designs.
An amicus brief is a document—one of many such briefs filed in every Supreme Court case—that presents relevant information to the Justices, who may not be experts in the given subject. So far, 18 of these briefs have been filed in the Samsung v. Apple case, with some coming out in support of Apple, some of Samsung, and some for neither party.
The new brief, filed last week, is a veritable who's who of designers and design-thinkers, signed by the likes of Dieter Rams, Norman Foster, Robert Brunner, Alexander Wang, Paula Scher, Jasper Morrison, and many more. Even for those already informed about the importance of design to business, it's an entertaining read. But for those who are new to the subject, it could very well serve as a syllabus for Industrial Design 101.
In the brief, the designers walk through a few major historical comparisons to the Samsung v. Apple case. The first is to Coca-Cola: When Coke first started being sold in bottles, it had a very simple bottle design that anyone could copy—resulting in lost sales. In 1915, frustrated by copycats, they launched a national design competition for a new bottle so distinguished that "a person can recognize [it] when he feels it in the dark . . . so shaped that, even if broken, a person could tell at a glance what it was." The winning design by Earl R. Dean and Alexander Samuelson that drew inspiration from the shape of a cocoa pod, which became so iconic that it's inseparable from the brand as it is perceived today. Ninety-nine percent of all Coca-Cola drinkers swear it tastes better coming from the bottle, showing how design influences your overall perception of a product, even when that perception isn't visual.
The point the group is trying to make here is that the iPhone's look influences every other aspect of it, from its features to performance to the UI/UX. Samsung selling a smartphone that looks like an iPhone is just as dishonest as Pepsi selling their soft drinks in Coca-Cola bottles.
The second historical comparison the designers bring up is General Motors versus Ford. The original Model T, introduced by Henry Ford in 1908, was a boxy, unattractive vehicle that "came in any color, as long as it's black," yet still managed to sell 15 million units. In 1926, however, General Motors unveiled the first Chevrolet, a strikingly designed car that was noted, unlike the Model T, for its vivid use of color. This vehicle eventually led to general Motors establishing a special design department within the company, the "Art & Colours" department to study how "the appearance and style" of a vehicle contributed to its sales.
In other words, General Motors' investment in design allowed it to overthrow a powerful incumbent on the market, just like Apple—a company with no phone-making experience—was able to overthrow Samsung, an established player in the smartphone market, by investing heavily in design.
Samsung's position on this matter, shared by many of the tech companies that have filed another amicus brief in its favor, is that it's absurd to ask a company to divest total profits for one infringing aspect of a design patent. For example, it asks whether Jaguar should have to give Porsche all of its profits on a car, just because it violated the patent on the cup holder. Apple, and by extension, the designers who filed in support of Apple in this brief, argue that this position is disingenuous: No one would mistake a Jaguar for a Porsche based on its cup holder, whereas Samsung's theft of Apple design was so blatant, it extended right down to the icons used in Samsung's operating system.
In a sense, this battle pits the tech community against the design community, with tech companies terrified of a precedent that would cost them all of their profits if they happened to overlook a design patent collecting dust in a filing cabinet somewhere.
Anyway, all of these historical arguments and historical analogies are old hat to those who have studied industrial design. But the point of an amicus brief is to supply a Cliffs Notes on a complicated subject, so that the court can accurately judge the case. In this, the design professionals' brief is remarkably effective. Ignoring the Samsung v. Apple angle, you could easily give this brief to anyone as a quick primer on the history of industrial design, and have them walk away with a decent footing on the subject.
Read the brief in full here.