Samsung, Apple headed for Supreme Court showdown

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Samsung, Apple headed for Supreme Court showdown

What could be the finale to the 5-year Samsung-Apple patent war heads to the nation's highest court this week.

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Samsung, Apple headed for Supreme Court showdown

Jon Swartz , USA TODAY 5:02 a.m. EDT October 9, 2016
AFP 544795165 A CIT USA CA

In this Sept. 9, 2015, photo, Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces the iPhone 6S during an Apple media event in San Francisco.(Photo: Josh Edelson, AFP/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO — What could be the finale to the five-year-old Samsung-Apple patent dispute heads to the nation's highest court this week.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear oral arguments on financial damages the South Korean smartphone behemoth owes Apple for alleged violation of design patents. It could eventually decide damages and, more important, define the value of design work, which is increasingly valuable in the tech industry as products like smartphones become commodities. The court typically issues decisions three to four months after hearing arguments.

"If you asked people six years ago about design patents, they would have shrugged," Stanford Law professor Mark Lemley says. "This case has brought the topic into focus, and we’ve seen an increase in the number of lawsuits. It is seen as a strong method of protecting some kinds of innovation."

A jury in 2012 decided Samsung infringed on three of Apple's iPhone design patents (covering smartphones with a rectangular shape, curved corners and 16 colorful circles on a black screen), based on their look and not function. Apple was awarded nearly $1 billion — Samsung’s profits from the allegedly infringed phones — though the award was reduced on appeal to $584 million.

Samsung attorneys argue not all of a smartphone’s value is in its design. Utility patents, essentially the phone’s features, also are of value. The jury’s decision to award all of Samsung’s profits based on design infringement is a misreading of an 1886 patent law, they say.

Apple declined to comment on the case, the first before the Supreme Court, but it has made no secret it believes Samsung blatantly ripped off the iPhone design. It has repeatedly said Samsung in three months produced copycats of the iconic smartphone it took three years to create.

The acrimonious battle between the world's two most successful smartphone makers, which began in April 2011, could redefine a 130-year-old design patent law and upend the tech industry, say legal experts.

It is being watched closely by others, many of whom have a stake in the outcome as they compete with Apple for smartphone sales. Facebook, Google, Dell and Lenovo are among those backing Samsung; Apple has the support of more than 100 designers from companies such as Nike and Calvin Klein. Last week, Google announced Pixel, a new smartphone line, aimed squarely at Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy.

In the hour-long session with eight Supreme Court justices, Samsung lawyers will make their case for 25 minutes, followed by the Solicitor General’s office for 10. Apple’s legal team will have 25 minutes to respond. Samsung reps might then be called on for a final rebuttal.

Complicating matters: The death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, reducing the court to eight members. Senate Republicans refuse to consider President Obama’s choice, Judge Merrick Garland.

Predicting an outcome may be a coin flip because the court is currently locked in a 4-4 split along ideological lines, says Georgetown Law professor Rebecca Tushnet.

Follow USA TODAY San Francisco Bureau Chief Jon Swartz on Twitter.

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