Most discussions about the Supreme Court’s 8-0 decision in Samsung Electronics, Ltd. v. Apple Inc. have focused and will continue to focus on the decision’s implications for patent law and innovation. The decision also highlights the impact that Justice Scalia has had on the Supreme Court specifically and on legal thinking more generally. Indeed, although the decision in the case does not mention Justice Scalia, its analysis is, in many ways, a tribute to him.
In Samsung Electronics, the Supreme Court considered an appeal of a jury verdict that required Samsung to pay Apple more than $1 billion for infringing three of Apple’s design patents. Unlike utility patents, which deal with some functional aspect of a product, design patents focus solely on ornamental designs for articles of manufacture. In 1887, Congress enacted a statute that is now codified at 35 U.S.C. § 289 and that requires a person to infringes a design patent to pay to the owner of the patent “his total profit” related to the “article of manufacture.” While this analysis is easy for single-component products, it is more complicated for multi-component products such as smartphones. Both the district court in the case and the Federal Circuit held that the “article of manufacture” in question was the entire smartphone because consumer could not purchase something smaller. Samsung, however, argued in the Supreme Court that “article of manufacture” means the actual component that infringed the patent at issue, such as the screen or the case of the phone.
The Supreme Court decision, authored by Justice Sotomayor, reversed the Federal Circuit and agreed with Samsung’s reading. The Court’s analysis illustrates Justice Scalia’s influence on the Court’s approach to statutory interpretation. The opinion notes that the case required the Court to “address a threshold matter: the scope of the term ‘article of manufacture.’” In her opinion, Justice Sotomayor noted that the “text resolves this case.” It then defines the terms “article” and “manufacture” by looking to the definition of those terms in a dictionary from 1885. The opinion also discusses the fact that the definition that the Court adopted was consistent with other provisions of patent law. Notably absent from the decision is any attempt to divine Congressional intent from legislative history, commentary by legislators or third parties, or any other external source. Instead, the decision focuses solely on the text of the statute.
The fact that this opinion received unanimous support at the Court, without so much as a suggestion in the Court’s opinion or in a concurrence that the Court needed to look beyond the statutory text, speaks volumes to Justice Scalia’s influence. That aspect of the Court’s decision is noteworthy. Indeed, it gives some force to Justice Kagan’s statement at her confirmation hearing that “we are all originalists.” With some luck, and hard work by those who think Justice Scalia’s approach was the right one, there will be more decisions that evidence this consensus approach to statutory interpretation.
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Joshua Wolson is a partner at Dilworth Paxson, LLP.