This week, Apple and Samsung will present their arguments to the Supreme Court regarding Samsung's infringement on Apple's intellectual property. It’s been a long road to the highest court in the land—the case has been ongoing since 2011—so it’s totally fair if you’ve tuned out by now. Here’s a quick FAQ to get you caught up.
What’s this about?
Apple sued Samsung, successfully, by claiming that Samsung's Galaxy line of tablets and smartphones infringed on several of Apple’s design patents. Ultimately, 19 devices were found to infringe upon Apple's patents, and Samsung agreed to hand over $548 million.
Samsung appealed, of course. And that appeal went all the way to the Supreme Court—where Samsung is trying to get the total bill paid to Apple reduced by $399 million.
OK OK, but what’s this really about?
Now we’re into the good stuff. This case is really about how much power a particular kind of patent, known as a design patent, should have.
Apple didn’t sue Samsung for copying the iPhone. It sued Samsung for infringing on some design patents inside the iPhone. Whereas conventional "utility" patents pertain to how a device works, design patents can apply to how it looks. And design patents have a very wild history of precedents that currently equates to this: If your product infringes on a design patent—no matter how tiny, trivial, or superficial—you will have to pay 100% of that product’s profits to the patent holder.
Just how badly did Samsung rip off Apple, really?
Well, here’s the thing: Samsung was caught infringing three Apple design patents, and depending who you talk to, they can sound pretty silly. This first was for the rounded corners on the front of the device. The second was the rounded corners plus a rounded bezel. And the third was the grid of app icons you see in iOS. Again, Samsung wan’t busted for copying the iPhone. It was busted for copying a few distinctive elements of the iPhone.
Nobody is arguing that Samsung didn’t at this point (not even Samsung!). The question now is, should a design patent infringement be worth that much? 100% of profits?
Well, Samsung copied Apple—shouldn’t Samsung pay?
Nobody is arguing Samsung shouldn’t pay (again, not even Samsung!). Apple will basically argue that design—down to the smallest details—is what sells products, period. Samsung will basically argue that lots of things sell products, and even though design is super important, it’s not 100%.
Who should I root for?
This is a complicated question. Any consumer should probably root for Samsung, because let’s face it: a world in which Apple makes the only smartphone that’s remotely buyable sounds horrible and monopolistic. Designers, however, might side with Apple, because designers deserve credit, and patents that are worth 100% of an infringing product could give designers incredible protection over their work. And in fact, many famous designers, from Dieter Rams to Norman Foster, have declared their support for Apple.
Is it really that simple?
Nope. Because practically speaking, any independent designer ripped off by a big corporation could never afford to take them to court anyway. And all big businesses—even design-focused businesses like Apple—could find themselves in the sights of patent trolls. If a design patent is worth 100% of a product, and design patents can be minutia, a patent troll could theoretically score 100% of proceeds from all iPhones because of something similarly minor.
Design patents in their current form may be too powerful for anyone to wield—even designers.
When will we hear a verdict?
It could be weeks or months. Though I wouldn’t hold my breath until 2017.
Anything else I should know?
Yeah. You know which company has more design patents than anyone else in the US?