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Apple-Samsung Patent War Will Wage on in U.S. Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether Samsung copied design elements of the iPhone, and whether Apple can protect the "rectangular product with rounded corners" shape.

The grant of certiorari comes nearly two years after U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh ruled against Samsung in its massive patent face-off with Apple over various smartphone-related patents. San Francisco-based Koh ordered Samsung to pay Apple $119 million, but ordered Apple to pay Samsung only a negligible $158,000.

Apple initiated the longstanding case in 2011 with its claim that Samsung "slavishly copied" its iPhone and iPad technology to produce the Galaxy line of smartphones and tablets.

Though that case ended with a $1 billion jury award for Apple, Koh threw that verdict out over goofs by the jury. A retrial gave Apple just $290 million.

Samsung immediately appealed both cases to the Federal Circuit, which gave Samsung only partial relief from the adverse judgments last year.

In particular, the federal appeals court in Washington ruled that Apple's iPhone trade dress is not protectable.

Apple claimed that the trade dresses of the iPhone include "a rectangular product with four evenly rounded corners," "a flat clear surface coving the front of the product," "a display screen under the clear surface," and "substantial black borders above and below the display screen."

But a trade dress is only protectable if it is non-functional, and "serves no purpose other than identification" of the product's maker, the court said.

"Apple emphasizes a single aspect of its design, beauty, to imply the lack of other advantages," Judge Sharon Prost wrote for a three-person panel. "But the evidence showed the iPhone's design pursued more than just beauty."

Samsung cited extensive evidence of the functionality of Apple's design, including that the rounded corners of the iPhone improve "pocketability" while its rectangular shape maximizes display area, according to the judgment.

The panel also overturned the jury's finding that Samsung infringed on Apple's registered trademark covering design details in each of the 16 icons on the iPhone's home screen.

"There is no dispute that the claimed details such as 'the seventh icon depicts a map with yellow and orange roads, a pin with a red head, and a red-and-blue road sign with the numeral '280' in white' are functional," the court said.

Rather, the icons are specifically designed to be "visual shorthand" indicating the functionality of that icon.

The court did, however, uphold the ruling for Apple on the bulk of its claims concerning design patents, including patents for the design of the front and back face of the iPhone, and the organization of the phone's home page.

Twenty-seven law professors had filed an amicus brief on Samsung's behalf, arguing that an award of entire profits for design patent infringement "makes no sense in the modern world," according to the judgment.

But the court said that this concern was a matter of policy best directed to Congress, and it is bound by the test of the statute no matter the policy arguments against it.

Per its custom, the U.S. Supreme Court did not issue any comment in taking up Samsung's appeal Monday.

Apple and Samsung are set to face a third trial before Judge Koh in San Francisco over damages. At a pretrial hearing earlier this month, Koh considered a challenge by Samsung to three pieces of evidence it says are now irrelevant.

The grant of certiorari led Samsung to file an emergency motion Monday in San Francisco, asking Koh to put next week's trial on ice, pending the Supreme Court's resolution of the design-patent damages.

"Absent a stay, there is a serious risk that a fourth trial would be necessary because the Supreme Court's decision on design-patent damages could significantly alter the scope of the upcoming retrial, as well as the jury instructions to be given at that trial," the motion states, signed by Victoria Maroulis with Quinn Emanuel. "And though trial is only a week away, a stay would still have a very real practical effect, as it would avoid potentially duplicative and wasteful proceedings and ensure that the court, the parties, and the jurors do not needlessly expend time and resources on burdensome trial and post-trial proceedings that may well be upset by the Supreme Court's decision."

Last month, the Federal Circuit overturned the $120 million verdict that jurors handed Apple based on its patents of slide-to-unlock and autocorrect patents.

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