The Supreme Court will weigh in on the value of design patents in the Apple-Samsung hearing Tuesday

After five long years winding its way through the federal court system, the highest court in the land is set to hear arguments in the case of Apple vs. Samsung on Tuesday.

The justices agreed in March to hear the case, in particular to address the issue of how damages are calculated in design patent cases. Currently, awards are calculated based on the total profit on a device.

The case, filed in 2011, is the first of two patent battles between the world’s two largest phone makers and centers on a handful of older Samsung phones, including the Galaxy S II. Design patents accounted for about $400 million in the nearly billion dollar verdict in Apple’s favor, with the remainder dealing with the more typical type of patents that focus on how a device works versus how it looks.

But the stakes for the tech industry are much larger than what happens to some older phones or whether or not Samsung pays Apple a few hundred million dollars. It’s the first time in more than a century that the court has taken up a design patent case.

Samsung argues that Apple shouldn’t be allowed to get all of Samsung’s profits from infringing devices, even if a portion of the phone infringes on Apple’s design patents. But that’s how the law has been interpreted over the years.

Apple, meanwhile, has argued that Samsung’s early Android devices were essentially an effort to copy the iPhone and is expected to argue that the current method of calculating damages make sense, especially in this case.

Samsung has lined up high-profile allies in the case, including a bunch of law professors and tech heavyweights such as Google, Dell, HP and Lenovo. Apple has its supporters, too, including Tiffany & Co., Adidas and plastic shoemaker Crocs.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has weighed in with a divided opinion on the matter, with its Supreme Court lawyer, the solicitor general, expected to take part in the oral arguments.

While the high court will hear oral arguments from Apple and Samsung on Tuesday — and share an inkling in their thinking via their questions — a written decision from the justices could take months.

The case is the first of two big patent battles between the two companies. In the later case, a federal appeals court last week reinstated the jury verdict awarding Apple $119 million in damages, overturning an earlier ruling by a three-judge panel of the appeals court.

Samsung, not surprisingly, was dismayed by the ruling, saying it “was looking carefully at the possibility of Supreme Court review.”

So, if the Supreme Court were so inclined, Tuesday might not be the last time it gets to weigh in on the matter of Apple v. Samsung.


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