The Supreme Court on Tuesday overruled an earlier court decision that would have required Samsung to pay Apple $399 million for damages related to smartphone patent infringement.
The decision is a significant reversal of fortunes for Apple, which was initially awarded north of $1 billion, before seeing its damages eroded to $548 million and finally to just under $400 million with successive appeals by Samsung's lawyers.
In the Supreme Court's unanimous decision, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, it found that copyright law does not allow Apple to claim damages for the entirety of Samsung's smartphone profits, only the portions directly related to the patents that Samsung allegedly infringed, which the law calls "articles of manufacture." A lower court had ruled that because the components of a smartphone are not sold separately to consumers, Samsung should have to pay damages based on its overall smartphone profits.
"In the case of a design for a single-component product, such as a dinner plate, the product is the 'article of manufacture' to which the design has been applied," Justice Sotomayor wrote. "In the case of a design for a multicomponent product, such as a kitchen oven, identifying the 'article of manufacture' to which the design has been applied is a more difficult task."
The court did not rule on which specific Samsung components infringe Apple's patents, instead remanding the case back to a federal circuit court. A remand is what Samsung's lawyers asked for in an August legal brief, in which they argued that design patent damages should be decided on each component of a smartphone, rather than the entire product. In response, Apple's lawyers argued that Congress has been clear on the issue of design patent damages, and there was no reason the Supreme Court should allow Samsung to make further arguments.
Apple's long-running case against Samsung has its roots in its former CEO Steve Jobs's crusade against the Android mobile operating system and all devices that run it, which he claimed were rip-offs of the iPhone.
"I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong," Jobs famously said. "I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this."
And Apple did just that, with cases filed around the globe. In 2014, however, the companies agreed to drop all patent litigation outside of the States, leaving only US cases to be fought in court.