The end of the smartphone wars is almost here.
Six years after Apple filed its first lawsuit claiming unauthorized copying of the iPhone, the company will square off at the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday against rival Samsung Electronics Co. They will argue over how much of a $399 million patent infringement award Samsung must pay.
The fight will be one of the last showdowns between two antagonists that have filed four dozen lawsuits against each other and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on legal fees.
Samsung says the award, which represents its entire profit from 11 disputed phones, is a “disproportionate” sum for infringement of Apple’s patented design features. Apple says the full award is warranted given Samsung’s “blatant copying” of the iPhone’s iconic look.
The case comes as both companies grapple with more pressing legal concerns — Apple’s $15 billion European tax fight and Samsung’s exploding-battery crisis.
It will be the Supreme Court’s first examination in 120 years of design patents, which cover the ornamental look of an object rather than any functional aspect. The court last looked at design patents in disputes involving spoon handles in the 1870s and carpets in the 1890s.
Apple’s design patents cover the rounded corners of its phones, the rim that surrounds the front face and the grid of icons that users view.
A federal appeals court upheld the award, saying U.S. patent law lets Apple recoup Samsung’s total profit from the phones, and not just the part attributable to the copied design.
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In urging the Supreme Court to take up the appeal, Samsung said the ruling was akin to awarding the entire profits on a car because of an infringing cupholder. Apple rejects that analogy, saying that its patented features are more like the design of the entire car.
The case has narrowed since the high court accepted it in March. In court papers, Apple says it accepts that in some cases the patent holder can collect only the profit attributable to a particular component, and not the earnings from the entire product.
Apple says, however, that Samsung failed to show that the patented designs applied only to part of its phones. Samsung contends that it was Apple’s burden to show that the infringement gave Samsung any increased profits.
The amount of money at issue, as well as the public-relations impact, means the stakes are still high for Apple and Samsung. The Supreme Court could uphold the award, invalidate it entirely or order a new trial on the amount of damages.
Its ruling also will affect Apple’s effort to win another $180 million from Samsung for five devices that have already been found to be infringing.