On Oct. 7, Samsung found itself facing an unpleasant result in one of the many patent lawsuits it’s a part of: A federal appellate court reinstated a jury verdict of US$119 million against Samsung in favor of Apple.
In that case, Samsung was found to have infringed three Apple utility patents on how smartphones function. The first related to a smartphone’s ability to create links automatically to webpages and phone numbers, so the user need only press the link to jump to the webpage or call someone. Another covered the “slide to unlock” screen function. The third related to the phone providing autocorrect recommendations when the user was typing. Samsung’s smartphones all incorporated these features, without Apple’s permission.
But not all of the patent law news was bad for Samsung. In a different chapter of the Apple v. Samsung smartphone patent saga, the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 11 heard arguments over a $400 million verdict against Samsung for infringing several Apple iPhone design patents. Aside from the enormous amount of money at stake, this is the first time the Supreme Court has addressed design patents in more than a century. This generally sleepy area of intellectual property has awoken. And, reading the tea leaves from the oral argument, it seems that Samsung will likely win at the Supreme Court.
The key to this case, as contrasted with the other loss, is that the Supreme Court case is about design patents, not utility patents. What is the difference? Utility patents, like the “slide to unlock” patent, cover new inventions that have some sort of practical use – like the proverbial “better mousetrap.” Design patents, like those at issue in the Supreme Court case, protect the “ornamental design” of an item rather than the way a product works.