In its patent dispute with Apple, Samsung is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take a digital-age look at an issue it last confronted in the horse-and-buggy era. South Korea-based Samsung on Monday appealed a $399 million judgment for illegally copying patented aspects of the look of Apple's iPhone, the latest round in a long-running fight between the two tech-industry giants.
The last time the Supreme Court heard cases on patents covering the appearance of a product instead of the way it works was in the late 1800s, when the court battles concerned designs of spoon handles, carpets and saddles.
Apple and Samsung are the top two manufacturers of smartphones. None of the earlier-generation Galaxy and other Samsung phones involved in the lawsuit remains on the market, Samsung said.
The company's appeal raises two issues at the Supreme Court, arguing that the lower-court ruling upholding the judgment "overprotects and overcompensates" Apple's patents. One question is how juries should value the common features for which Apple holds patents: the flat screen, the rectangular shape with rounded corners, a rim and a screen of icons. Samsung said the jury in this case had too much freedom to look at the overall appearance of the phones, rather than focus on those three elements.
The other issue at the Supreme Court is whether a court can order Samsung to pay Apple every penny it made from the phones at issue when the disputed features are a tiny part of the product. The federal appeals court in Washington that hears patent cases ruled for Apple on both counts.
"Samsung is escalating this case because it believes that the way the laws were interpreted is not in line with modern times," Samsung said in a statement that accompanied its Supreme Court appeal. Apple spokeswoman Rachel Tulley said the case is about more than patents and money. "We make these products to delight our customers, not for our competitors to flagrantly copy," Tulley said.
The Supreme Court could decide early next year whether to hear the case, but arguments would not take place before the fall of 2016.
Samsung is not challenging the design patents themselves at the Supreme Court, although the Patent and Trademark Office has issued a preliminary ruling against Apple's design patent for the flat surface of its iPhone. Samsung already has handed the $399 million over to Apple and could seek a refund if the patent decision stands or the Supreme Court rules in its favor.