The US Supreme Court came down on the side of Samsung in the latest round of a long-running patent dispute with Apple (dating back to 2011), for which the US smartphone maker had previously been awarded $399 million in damages.

The issue centres on the design of earlier Samsung smartphones, and similarities with Apple products.

“As relevant here, a jury found that various smartphones manufactured by petitioners (collectively, Samsung) infringed design patents owned by respondent Apple that covered a rectangular front face with rounded edges and a grid of colourful icons on a black screen,” the court said.

As a result, the iPhone maker was awarded “$399 million in damages – Samsung’s entire profit from the sale of its infringing smartphones”.

Samsung argued that damages should be limited to “the relevant articles of manufacture”, in this case screens and device casings, rather than the smartphone as a whole. An earlier Federal Court judgement “reasoned that such a limit was not required because the components of Samsung’s smartphones were not sold separately to ordinary consumers and thus were not distinct articles of manufacture”.

The Supreme Court now said that “because the term article of manufacture is broad enough to embrace both a product sold to a consumer and a component of that product, whether sold separately or not, the Federal Circuit’s narrower reading cannot be squared” with the relevant legislation.

While the current ruling in favour of Samsung is significant, Apple could easily argue that its work has already been done – the South Korean smartphone makers’ devices now look notably different to how they did in 2011, and different from the iPhone line.

Specialist website FOSS Patents said that, had the Federal Court decision been upheld, “numerous companies would have overcompensated design patent holders through settlements”, and District Courts would have instructed juries in the same way, “resulting in who-knows-how-many exorbitant damages awards”.

But with the Apple/Samsung case already in play for five years, the report noted that the Supreme Court decision focused specifically on the interpretation of how the term ‘article of manufacture’ can be applied – and not how it applies to this case in particular.

The case now goes back to the Federal Court.