Samsung and Apple Clash in Supreme Court Over What Sells a Phone

What makes you buy a phone? Is it when all the right parts come together for on one device? Or can singular, specific elements make the difference?

Samsung and Apple are currently battling over these questions, and the U.S. Supreme Court is left to determine where the line is drawn on what makes a consumer buy a smartphone.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard the oral arguments of the patent case that Samsung Electronics Co. has brought against Apple Inc.

Previously, Apple had offered to let Samsung, as a “trusted partner,” pay $30 for each phone sold because they believed Samsung had copied their patent designs. After they declined the offer, Apple sued Samsung in 2012 over 11 smartphone models that jurors found infringed Apple’s patents for iPhone designs. Samsung was then faced with having to pay “total profits,” thanks to a case about carpets dating back to 1885. This total amounts to $548 million, as agreed upon in December 2015.

But, Samsung appealed to fight the total profits ruling long enough for the decision to end up in the hands of the Supreme Court.

Kathleen Sullivan, representing Samsung, tried to urge the justices to institute some sort of test for determining how much a company should pay in damages when there is patent infringement.

Sullivan opened her oral arguments saying, “A smartphone is smart because it contains hundreds of thousands of the technologies that make it work.” In previous cases, Samsung argued that the three components they were sued over—the glass front screen with rounded corners, the rounded corners and aspect ratio of the entire phone, and the grid design setup of the display—factored in to only be around one percent of the phone’s value.

Apple, on the other hand, argued that external design is a major factor for when consumers purchase a smartphone because it is what they see first, so the use of their patented designs was means for obtaining the whole of the profits.

“It’s like a game of Battleship,” said Hugh Panero, former CEO of XM Radio and Shapiro Fellow at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. “You constantly urge your team to file patents […]. You have to build up these patents to protect yourself.” According to Panero, companies have to plan to protect themselves when a company imitating their work comes along.

He said that designers—designers who have worked for everyone from Coca-Cola to NASA— were “obviously” falling to the side of Apple, so they could seek their own legal action based on the outcome of the case.

Meanwhile, tech giants like Google and Facebook along with other companies have filed an amicus brief in support of Samsung. Since they manufacture products that are made up many patented parts, including online platforms and operating software, this case has a lot at stake for them.

Panero asserted that “companies that are not hardware-based” were supporting Samsung for their own future endeavors into hardware, like Google’s most recent launch of their own smartphone.

A side-by-side comparison of Google’s Pixel and Apple’s iPhone shows many external hardware similarities.

At first glance, it's hard to see any differences between Google's Pixel smartphone and Apple's iPhone 7.

At first glance, it’s hard to see any differences between Google’s Pixel smartphone and Apple’s iPhone 7 via New Atlas.

If the ruling is made in favor of Samsung, Google could face far fewer headaches in the future with any patent conflicts with their own phone. But if Apple wins, that would open the doors for many more litigations.

“You don’t get much more precedent than the Supreme Court,” Panero said.

The Supreme Court will not return a verdict until June, allowing plenty of time for new products to launch that would be impacted by their decision.

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