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US Supremes to hear Samsung's gripes about the patent system after Apple billed it $550m

Come on, make a decision, you can't just keep us hanging on

It's a busy week for Apple, with the company showing off new products this morning and a court showdown with the FBI tomorrow. Now the US Supreme Court has just added more to the workload with Case 15‑77 [PDF].

In December, Samsung appealed to the Supremes in its long-running patent squabble with Apple over the design of its smartphones. Apple has successfully argued in court that Sammy's rectangular smartphones with smooth edges and little icons on the screen were a ripoff of the iPhone and the patents it holds on it.

Samsung settled the case in December, agreeing to pay Apple $548,176,477 to settle all non-US lawsuits. But it asked [PDF] the highest court in the Land of the Free to reconsider both the concept of design patents and the amount of damages that should be paid for infringing them, taking into consideration how much has changed.

The Supreme Court said on Monday that it will hear Samsung's petition on the amount of damages owed, but not on the validity of design patents themselves. The last time the court heard a case on design patents was in the 19th Century, and it seems to have decided no further review is needed.

So the announcement is good news, bad news for Samsung. It's still going to have to pay out, but the question now is how much. Under the current rules, it's 100 per cent of the profits from the patent infringement, which could cost Samsung over $1bn.

"We welcome the Court's decision to hear our case," the South Korean goliath said in a short statement.

"We thank the many large technology companies, 37 intellectual property professors, and several groups representing small business, which have supported our position. The Court's review of this case can lead to a fair interpretation of patent law that will support creativity and reward innovation."

Apple has, so far, declined to give its views on the announcement.

At the moment, the case looks set to go Apple's way. After last month's death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the court is one person down and likely to deadlock 4-4 on partisan grounds. That favors Apple, since a deadlock means the last ruling on the case stands.

President Obama has nominated Judge Merrick Garland to fill the ninth spot on the Supreme's roster, but the Republican-controlled Congress has said it won't consider a replacement until after the next presidential election – raising the prospect of Donald Trump making a more informed decision on the matter.

Given the deadlock, it's almost certain that an eight-person court will hear the case, meaning a high likelihood that Samsung will have to pay in the short term, and everyone else who doesn't have design patent control will have to do the same from here on after. ®

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