Apple tried to hold onto the full $548 million in damages it recouped from Samsung in a lawsuit over smartphone design patents, but it looks like it may now have to settle for much less, based on a Tuesday Supreme Court decision, the Hill reports. The ruling noted that even though Apple's 2011 complaint accused Samsung of ripping off the look of the iPhone for its own devices (including the "rectangular front face with rounded edges"), as well as how the grid that shows app icons is presented, Apple couldn't collect on damages on total profits Samsung took in for its phones overall (Apple had originally been awarded more than $1 billion by a jury in 2012, but that number was whittled down.) And it all came down to three words, per Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote the court's 8-0 opinion, per Reuters, which notes the high court almost never hears design patent cases.
According to Section 289 of the US Patent Act, the "article of manufacture" term used in patent law is meant to cover both the entire product that a consumer can buy, as well as individual elements, or components, of that product. The ruling points out that when an item is just one component (e.g., a dinner plate), it's easy to apply this law, but for a multi-component item such as a smartphone, it becomes trickier. The Supreme Court disagreed with the appeals court's ruling that the smartphone as a whole was the only way "article of manufacture" could be interpreted, instead deciding that design infringement (and therefore damages) could be parsed into separate components. The Supreme Court's decision overturned the appeals court's ruling for $399 million awarded to Apple, but Fortune notes the case is now being sent back to the lower court to decide how much Apple's patents really merit. (These two have been fighting for a while.)