How the Supreme Court Defines “Granular” Design

Granular Design vs. All-Encompassing

Apple and Samsung have been at war over patent and layout designs for over 5 years now. This past month, the Supreme Court sided with Samsung and ruled against Apple in the design patent case. Here’s why it’s changed the landscape for how we have interpret the integrity of design patents looking ahead: Granular Design vs. All-Encompassing. 

After a relatively short deliberation, the Supreme Court has sided unanimously with Samsung in the company’s legal battle with Apple.

In a landmark decision, the court ruled that granular design patents could be treated as just that, granular, rather than the all-encompassing, powerful patents that the law currently describes them as. Traditionally, a design patent protects an entire article of manufacture, but the patent itself can be far more granular than the article itself.

According to the The National Law Review, Justice Sotomayor reversed the Federal Circuit’s ruling that Apple was entitled to $399 million in damages. The appeal turned on the interpretation of the phrase “article of manufacture“.

The legal battle over the patent issue started this past October. Apple argued that Samsung copied some design aspects of Apple’s iPhone. But the South Korean company argued that it should pay a smaller amount because it did not market a carbon copy of the iPhone. In 2011, Apple sued Samsung for infringement of design patents. Samsung was found guilty and Apple was awarded $399 million in damages. Samsung fought back by filing a countersuit against Apple for 3g wireless patent infringement. Since then, more than 50 legal battles between the two tech companies have taken place worldwide.

Believe it or Not

Before the legal battles, Apple and Samsung had a great relationship. They were long-time partners, Samsung used to be a major Apple supplier until the South Korean Company decided to sell android devices. Apple called it “stolen” product and copycat of the iPhone.

“So understood, the term ‘article of manufacture’ is broad enough to encompass both a product sold to a consumer as well as a component of that product,” Sotomayor said.

In December of 2015, Samsung was forced to pay Apple its complete profits from 19 Samsung products that were found to infringe on Apple patents by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit—a staggering total of $548 million. But Samsung was hoping to get $399 million of that money back. Samsung wasn’t found guilty of copying the iPhone as a singular invention. Rather, it was found guilty of infringing upon three specific design patents:

  1. The rounded corners on the front of the iPhone,
  2. The rounded corners plus a rounded bezel of the iPhone, and
  3. A grid of app icons you see in iOS.

Samsung may or may not recoup hundreds of millions of dollars as a result, but the decision will impact all companies filing design patents for years to come. It seems that patent wars between these two giant companies will never end.

Here’s how the timeline all began:

The Apple-Samsung Timeline

Aug. 2010: The warning

Apple warns Samsung it believes some Samsung phones and tablets infringe on Apple patents. Since Samsung is a major Apple supplier and a “trusted partner,” Apple wants to work out a deal.

Oct. 2010: The failed meeting

Apple meets with Samsung to propose a licensing deal where Samsung would pay Apple up to $30 per phone and $40 per tablet. In comparison, six months earlier HTC agreed to pay Microsoft a reported $5 for every Android device sold. Samsung declines.

April 2011: The first lawsuit, and the countersuit

Apple sues Samsung, claiming Samsung “slavishly” copied its product designs. Within days, Samsung countersues over 3G technology patents, and takes the fight international by filing claims against Apple in Japan, Germany, and Korea.

Aug. – Sept. 2011: Products pulled from shelves

Apple has sales of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 put on hold in Australia and secures an injunction on Galaxy Tab 10.1 sales in the EU, claiming its design too closely resembled the iPad. The EU injunction is quickly scaled back to just Germany, but Apple gets the German ban extended to the Galaxy Tab 7.7.

You can see the rest of a timeline over at Digital Trends.

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