Justices appear likely to lean towards Samsung in their smartphone design dispute with Apple.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appeared likely to rule that Samsung should not have to forfeit the entire profits from smartphones that violated Apple’s design patents because the infringement affected only their appearance, not their capabilities.

In an hour-long oral argument Tuesday that conjured up examples ranging from wallpaper to Volkswagen Beetles, a majority of justices seemed to buy Samsung’s argument that lower courts improperly allowed more expansive — and expensive — interpretations of patent law. The court typically issues decisions three to four months after hearing arguments.

“Nobody buys a car, even a Beetle, just because they like the way it looks,” Justice Samuel Alito said.

Chief Justice John Roberts said Apple’s iconic iPhone design applies to the exterior face of the phone — not “all the chips and wires.”

But several justices said it would be difficult if not impossible for juries to determine the size of a patent infringement award when one part of a product’s design is infringed upon. And several said a distinctive design can represent a large percentage of the profit, an indication that Samsung may not be off the hook if the case is returned to a lower court for resolution.

The legal battle between the two technology giants represents the first design patent case to reach the Supreme Court in more than a century. The dollars at stake are huge: Samsung initially was ordered to pay nearly $1 billion before the penalty was reduced to $548 million. If it wins, it could recoup as much as $399 million more.

​A jury in…