The never-ending court battle between Apple and Samsung over three iPhone design patents finally reached the Supreme Court yesterday. It had earlier been found that a total of 11 Samsung phones copied three design elements patented by Apple – including the famous ‘black rectangle with rounded corners.’ Lower courts ruled that Samsung should have to pay 100% of the profits earned from those phones, while Samsung thinks it should pay less.

Remarks by two of the Justices seem to indicate that they are leaning heavily towards Samsung’s side of the argument. Samsung’s position is that the patented features represent only part of the reason for purchase, and that they should accordingly have to hand over only part of the profits earned from them …

Chief Justice John Roberts agreed that the exterior design represented only part of the appeal of a phone.

Maybe I’m not grasping the difficulties in this case. It seems to me that the design is applied to the exterior case of the phone. It’s not applied to all the chips and wires.

Justice Stephen Breyer gave an even more definitive indication of his own view, which accords with that of many law professors.

For wallpaper, you get the whole thing [100% of the profits]. A Rolls-Royce with the thing on the hood? No, no, no you don’t get profits on the whole car.

Roberts agreed that the award should reflect only the value apportioned to the exterior casing. Apple lawyer Seth Waxman didn’t directly dispute this, but argued instead that Samsung had failed to make this point in earlier hearings, and therefore the jury was correct in awarding damages based on the entire phone, not just elements of the design.

However, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that consumers might indeed be basing their purchase decision purely on the visible design elements which Samsung had copied from the iPhone.

The phone could be seen by a purchasing consumer as being just … that rounded edge, slim outer shell.

There was also a discussion of the iconic VW Beetle, whose visual design may have represented the primary reason for purchase. A lawyer for the government – which is not taking sides in the dispute, but participating as an interested party in terms of how the law is interpreted – said that a decision might be aided by bringing in expert witnesses and examining consumer surveys on reasons for purchase.

A Supreme Court ruling on the case is expected to take two to three months. If the court does rule that lower damages are appropriate, it will not itself decide that amount, but instead pass the case back to a federal court to rule on the revised sum. With recent events, Samsung will be trying to hang on to all the money it can …

Drawn from reports by ArsTechnica, MacWorld, Fortune, Reuters and Buzzfeed.

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Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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