By Sarah Burstein, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law
Samsung Elecs. Am., Inc. v. Apple Inc., No. 15-777 (argued Oct. 11, 2016) Transcript
Where a design patent is applied to only a component of a product, should an award of infringer’s profits be limited to those profits attributable to the component?
The relevant statute is 35 U.S.C. § 289, which provides a special additional remedy for certain acts of design patent infringement. Section 289 states:
Whoever during the term of a patent for a design, without license of the owner, (1) applies the patented design, or any colorable imitation thereof, to any article of manufacture for the purpose of sale, or (2) sells or exposes for sale any article of manufacture to which such design or colorable imitation has been applied shall be liable to the owner to the extent of his total profit, but not less than $250, recoverable in any United States district court having jurisdiction of the parties.
Nothing in this section shall prevent, lessen, or impeach any other remedy which an owner of an infringed patent has under the provisions of this title, but he shall not twice recover the profit made from the infringement.
In Apple and a case decided briefly after it, Nordock v. Systems, the Federal Circuit ruled that § 289 requires a court to award the total profit from the entire infringing product to a successful design patentee—even when the design patent claims a small portion of the overall product design.
In its cert petition and merits brief, Samsung argued that the “article of manufacture” in § 289 could be something less than the entire infringing product. In its brief opposing cert, Apple defended the Federal Circuit’s interpretation. Yet, in its merits brief, Apple agreed with Samsung (and the United States) that the relevant “article of manufacture” could be something less than the entire infringing product.
At oral argument, Samsung informed the Court that it was dropping its “causation argument” (i.e., that § 289 must be read in light of background causation principles from general tort law) and wanted to focus on its “article of manufacture” argument (i.e., its argument that a successful design patentee should be entitled to the “total profit” from the “article of manufacture” but that the relevant article should be determined mainly by looking at whether the patent claims a whole design or only part).
Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the oral argument was spent discussing how factfinders should determine what constitutes the relevant “article of manufacture” for the purposes of § 289. The Justices seemed particularly interested in how a jury could be instructed to perform this determination. The Justices spent a lot of time pressing the parties about the desirability of the four-part test proposed by the United States, asking if they thought that approach was appropriate and if there were any factors they would add.
It was also very clear during the argument that Apple really wanted to focus on its new waiver argument. In its merits brief (though not in its brief opposing cert), Apple argued that Samsung failed to preserve the “article of manufacture” argument for appeal. After a few questions, however, the Justices’ patience for this line of argument waned and the Chief Justice rather pointedly told Apple’s counsel to move on. The clear message conveyed was that the Justices didn’t need to be told what was in the record; they were perfectly capable of reviewing it for themselves.
On the whole, and based solely on the arguments, it seemed like the Justices were leaning toward adopting some form of multi-factor test to determine what constitutes the relevant “article of manufacture.” What that test might look like was far from clear. At some points, the Justices seemed visibly frustrated by the prospect of coming up with a workable test; whether they were convinced that any of the proposed tests would, indeed, be workable remains to be seen.
In this observer’s opinion, the real problem is the attempt to add a qualitative element to this test, instead of focusing on what the patentee actually claims. Also, it’s no wonder that the Justices and parties had difficulty trying to identify the relevant article of manufacture for the D’305 patent, which claims a design for a single screenshot of the iPhone graphical user interface (“GUI”). Like other GUI designs, the D’305 patent claims a design for software, not a design for a screen (no matter what the PTO says).
In any case, there was no indication that any of the Justices were seriously considering upholding the Federal Circuit’s whole-product rule, which a couple of justices derided as clearly absurd. Justice Breyer did express some concern, at the end, about subverting the original congressional intent. However, he seemed more concerned about creating/affirming a rule with “absurd results.”
One thought: The phrase “article of manufacture” doesn’t just appear in § 289. It also appears in § 171, which defines design-patentable subject matter. Although the Federal Circuit wasn’t asked to construe that phrase in § 289 until Apple, it has issued a number of decisions on what constitutes an “article of manufacture” in the context of § 171. The Federal Circuit didn’t mention any of those cases in its decision in Apple and the parties haven’t relied on them to make their points before the Supreme Court. However, under normal principles of statutory construction, this phrase should mean the same thing in both of these key design patent provisions. It seems fairly clear that the Federal Circuit expanded the definition of “article of manufacture” in § 171 without thinking of the potential consequences for § 289 (arguably leading to the worst of the “absurd results” created by the Federal Circuit’s Apple/Nordock rule). And it seems likely that the reverse might happen here—the Justices might redefine the “article of manufacture” in § 289 without considering any potential consequences for § 171. Of course, those issues weren’t briefed. But it’s still an issue worth keeping an eye on.