The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, while upholding most of Apple’s 2012 patent infringement victory over Samsung, ruled that the design of the iPhone was not protectable as “trade dress.”

In 2012, a federal jury found that Samsung violated several Apple design and utility patents and awarded Apple more than $1 billion in damages. This amount was later reduced to $930 million on retrial.

The Federal Circuit has now vacated $382 million of the $930 million attributable to trade dress dilution, while affirming the jury finding that Samsung infringed Apple’s utility and design patents.

Trade Dress

Trade dress law is related to trademark law, and both are governed by the federal Lanham Act.

Trade dress law can protect the design of a product, its packaging, and even the overall “look and feel” of a business – such as a Mexican restaurant chain.

However, trade dress law only protects the aesthetic, non-functional features of a product.

According to the Federal Circuit,

[A] product feature is functional if it is essential to the use or purpose of the article or if it affects the cost or quality of the article…. A product feature need only have some utilitarian advantage to be considered functional…. A trade dress, taken as a whole, is functional if it is in its particular shape because it works better in this shape.

Because Samsung introduced evidence that several of the Apple design features were useful as well as beautiful, the court concluded that the phone design could not be protected as trade dress.

The case is Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. et al.


The design and surface features of a product can be protected under laws covering trademarks, trade dress, design patents, and copyright. Each area of law is different, so it is important to consider them all when coming up with a strategy for protecting a product.

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Photo Attribution: “IPhone3GS” by nvog86. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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