(Recasts first paragraph, adds quotes from justices)
By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON Oct 11 The fierce, big-money patent
fight between Apple and Samsung left the U.S. Supreme Court
groping for a solution on Tuesday, as the justices puzzled over
how to discern the value of individual design elements in a
complex product like an iPhone.
The eight justices heard arguments in Samsung's
bid to pare back $399 million of $548 million it paid Apple
in December following a 2012 jury verdict finding that
it infringed Apple's iPhone patents and copied its distinctive
appearance in making the Galaxy and other competing devices.
The $399 million penalty stemmed specifically from Samsung's
violation of three Apple patents on the design of the iPhone's
rounded-corner front face, bezel and colorful grid of icons that
represent programs and applications.
While the justices signaled a willingness to reduce the
potentially huge penalties imposed for ripping off someone
else's patented design, some expressed skepticism over how, in
practice, juries could figure out the importance of a specific
design trait in a product in order to calculate damages.
"If I were a juror, I wouldn't know what to do," Justice
Anthony Kennedy said.
Several justices struggled with how they would devise a test
for lower courts and juries to use to determine design patent
Using as an example the Volkswagen Beetle's unique
automobile body contour, Justice Elena Kagan suggested it might
be difficult for a jury to decide how much damages to award
based on a theoretical patent infringement of its shape, when
that trait might be the main factor driving consumers to buy it.
Smartphones like Cupertino, California-based Apple's iPhone
and South Korea-based Samsung Electronics Co Ltd's Galaxy have
become an indispensable part of everyday life for many people
worldwide, as well as huge business for their makers. Samsung is
the world's No. 1 smartphone manufacturer. Apple is its fiercest
The case was heard on same day Samsung scrapped its flagship
Galaxy Note 7 smartphone following reports of the phones
catching fire. It was supposed to have competed with Apple's
latest iPhone for smartphone market supremacy.
Samsung has contended it should not have had to turn over
all its profits on phones that infringed the iPhone design
patents, which the company said contributed only marginally to a
complex product with thousands of patented features.
Chief Justice John Roberts said that since the patented
designs involve the outer case of a smartphone and not "all the
chips and wires" inside, the profits awarded should not be based
on the entire price of the phone.
After the argument, Samsung's attorney, Kathleen Sullivan,
said, "We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will give a
sensible and fair reading to the design patent statute. That
would be a win for businesses and consumers alike."
Apple's chief litigation officer, Noreen Krall, said courts
at every level have found that Samsung intentionally and
blatantly copied the iPhone, adding: "We think that's wrong and
that it poses chilling risks to the future of design
A ruling is due by the end of June.
Apple sued Samsung in 2011, asserting that its rival stole
its technology and the iPhone's trademarked appearance. After a
trial in 2012, Apple was awarded nearly $930 million in damages.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in
Washington last year upheld the patent infringement verdict, but
said the iPhone's appearance could not be protected through
trademarks. That cut Samsung's damages back to $548.2 million.
Design patent fights very rarely reach the Supreme Court,
which had not heard such a case in more than 120 years.
The case is Samsung Electronics Co Ltd v. Apple Inc, in the
Supreme Court of the United States, No. 15-777.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)