The patents are for features that Apple says make its iPhone unique, such as multitouch technology. The Cupertino, Calif.-based company can't block Samsung products for infringing patented designs, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said in an opinion posted Monday on its website.
Apple must prove the features were a factor customers used in selecting which smartphone to buy, the court ruled. The ruling gives Apple another chance to curb sales of its top competitor in the $279.9 billion market for smartphones. While many of the phones in this case are no longer sold, Apple has another case against Samsung going to trial in March over newer models, including Samsung's Galaxy S III.
In rejecting Apple's request for a sales block on Samsung phones, the trial judge said Apple would have to prove that each feature drove sales of smartphones.
"To the extent these statements reflect the view that Apple was necessarily required to show that a patented feature is the sole reason for consumers' purchases, the court erred," the three-judge panel ruled. "Rather than show that a patented feature is the exclusive reason for consumer demand, Apple must show some connection between the patented feature and demand for Samsung's products."
A federal jury last year awarded Apple $1 billion in compensation from Samsung, although part of the damage award is being retried in federal court in San Jose, Calif.
Apple is trying to force Suwon, South Korea-based Samsung to change or stop selling some smartphones and tablet computers. The $1 billion verdict it won at trial last year equals less than two weeks' worth of iPhone sales.
Apple filed the lawsuit in April 2011, saying the Korean company "has chosen to slavishly copy Apple's innovative technology." Samsung responded a week later with its own patent claims, and the fight has escalated into a legal battle that has spanned four continents.
The design patents included one covering the front face of the iPhone. The ones Apple can seek a sales ban on cover functions to make the phone easier to use, such as a pinching motion to expand images, a double tap to zoom and a screen that bounces back at a document's end so the user knows the image isn't stuck. These patents, Apple said in a court filing, are the "crown jewels of Apple's 'unique user experience.'"