US DOJ closes Samsung standards-essential patent probe

The DOJ closed its investigation of whether Samsung was abusing patents to block competitors imports when an import restriction was vetoed

The Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has closed its investigation into attempts by Samsung Electronics to use standards-essential patents (SEPs) to ban Apple products from the U.S. market. A decision in a similar case in the European Union is expected to arrive in April, the European Commission said Monday.

The DOJ was investigating Samsung's efforts to obtain exclusion orders from the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) in order to block the import of iPhone and iPad models into the U.S.

The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) banned the import of some older iPhone and iPad models in June last year when it decided Apple infringed on a patent Samsung had declared essential to 3G wireless technology.

That decision, however, was vetoed by the Obama administration in August, when it found banning the products would be against U.S. public interest. At the time, the administration also said it was concerned that SEPs could be used to harm competition.

Standards-essential patents are patents that the owner deems essential to implementing technology standards. Under the rules of many industry standards bodies, owners of such patents must agree to license such patents on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. However, companies often disagree on what constitutes a fair licensing price for such patents. 

Because the Obama administration overturned the exclusion order sought by Samsung, the DOJ's Antitrust Division determined that no further action is required at this time, the DOJ said in a statement released on Friday. While this particular investigation is now closed, the DOJ will continue to monitor further developments in this area, it added.

A number of competitive issues arise when holders of SEPs seek to block their competitors from selling products that implement the SEPs, the DOJ said. There are circumstances where an exclusion order as a remedy for infringement of such patents could be appropriate, but in many cases there is a risk that the patent holder could use the threat of an exclusion order to obtain licensing terms that are more onerous than would be justified by the value of the technology itself, it said.

The Antitrust Division has worked closely and consulted frequently with its colleagues at the European Commission, the DOJ said, adding that this cooperation underscores the agencies' common concerns over the potential harm to competition that can result from the anticompetitive use of SEPs.

The European Commission is also investigating Samsung's seeking of sales bans of Apple products in several E.U. countries based on SEPs.

When the Commission said that seeking of injunctions against Apple on the basis of Samsung's mobile SEPs may have amounted to an abuse of a dominant position prohibited by E.U. antitrust rules, Samsung dropped all those requests in a bid to avoid sanctions.

In October it also offered to abstain from seeking injunctions for mobile SEPs for a period of five years against any company that agrees to a particular licensing framework to remedy these concerns.

"The latest commitment proposals by Samsung are good and the Commission should be able to adopt a final decision in April," said Antoine Colombani, Commission spokesman for competition, in an email.

Samsung and Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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