What Samsung’s Supreme Court Victory Over Apple Means for the Future ofFashion

Kathleen Sullivan Supreme Court Apple Samsung
Samsung’s counsel Kathleen Sullivan (bottom right) exits the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., following the Dec. 6 ruling.
REX Shutterstock.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday handed down a ruling in favor of Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. in its hard-fought legal battle against Apple Inc., its largest competitor.

The unanimous decision is believed to have far-reaching implications for design protection — particularly for the fashion community, which came out in large numbers in support of Apple.

In August, Alexander Wang, Calvin Klein and Alber Elbaz were among the big fashion names to join the landmark case by signing an amicus brief in favor of Apple. Adidas and Crocs also filed separate briefs backing Apple in the case.

The initial patent suit goes back to 2011, when Apple sued Samsung alleging infringement on three patented design features of its cellphones.

In August 2012, a nine-person jury sided with Apple on most of its patent infringement claims against Samsung and awarded the tech giant more than $1 billion in damages — essentially the profits the firm made on the infringing product. (Samsung was eventually able to lower the amount it paid Apple, to about half of the original amount, through a series of appeals. In its decision on a countersuit by Samsung, the jury also sided with Apple, refusing to award Samsung the more than $422 million it sought.)

The initial ruling supported the long-held interpretation of the law that the owner of a patent should claim the full profits of an infringing product even if just part of the product — as in the case of Samsung and Apple — actually infringed on another’s patents.

The dueling tech giants fought their way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was tasked with answering the question: “Where a patented design is applied only to a component of a product, should an award of infringer’s profits be limited to profits attributable to that component?”

The Supreme Court essentially ruled Tuesday that damages in a patent infringement case can be limited to only the infringing design component, rejecting the long-held interpretation of the law.

Some experts believe that the ruling could weaken the legal framework for protecting designs — by devaluing patents — and lead to rampant design stealing and decreased creativity and innovation. Meanwhile, supporters of Samsung have argued that putting so much value on design patents is precisely the problem in the first place. Trade groups that support Samsung believed that many companies are making a profit by suing excessively over design patents.

The five-year battle between two of America’s biggest tech firms was the first patent case to reach the nation’s highest court in more than 120 years.

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