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Friday, Jan 18, 2013 2:12am
US ITC pushes back Samsung-Apple ruling another month
Though it is difficult to keep track at times, the latest update in the ongoing various and sundry legal battles between Apple and Samsung comes from the US International Trade Commission (ITC), which has been examining a complaint made by Samsung accusing Apple of infringing on four of Samsung's patents. The resolution of the complaint has been delayed again, for at least the second time, and is now scheduled for March 7. An ITC ruling on a Apple complaint against Samsung was pushed back last week to March 27.

In the initial review of the case, Judge James Gildea harshly rebuked [PDF] Samsung's entire case, though he also belittled Apple's proposed defense against Samsung had his ruling granted legitimacy to Samsung's patent claims. As it was, Gildea ruled that Apple was not infringing on any of Samsung's patents, and that at least two (and possibly all four) of the claimed patents were likely SEPs and thus ineligible for litigation. A later review of the judgement by ITC found no flaw in Gildea's ruling, a strong hint -- but no guarantee -- of how the final full review is likely to go.

The delay in the final ruling is likely due to the ongoing and overlapping investigations of Samsung's possible abuse of standards-essential patents (SEPs) in its legal fights against Apple and other companies. In light of the current European Commission's accusation that Samsung is indeed wielding SEPs as legal weapons to try and suppress competition, Apple has asked Samsung to withdraw all of its SEP-centered claims in various courts, which would render the Samsung ITC complaint moot since all or most of the claims are based on SEPs. Samsung did withdraw all SEP-based claims from court cases in Europe just before the commission levelled its accusations (in an attempt to appease the investigation), but has not done the same in the US or elsewhere -- a fact Apple has used in court to accuse the company of hypocrisy and double standards.

In the previous announcement of a delay in resolving the complaint, the ITC referred to "numerous submissions" concerning possible misbehavior by Samsung (along with Google and its subsidiary Motorola Mobility) over the fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) licensing of SEPs both in this case and generally among tech companies. Apple, Microsoft, Ericsson and other tech companies have argued that FRAND-eligible SEPs should not be able to be used in court except in extreme cases of disagreement over reasonable terms -- a position the Department of Justice, the FTC and the European Commission (along with several courts, most notably ITC Judge Richard Posner) all agree with. Samsung, Google and Motorola have all been accused of setting unreasonable royalty rates on their SEPs, and refusing to license to some competitors (such as Apple).

The Samsung ITC case against Apple was originally filed in June of 2011 and was expected to be resolved within 18 months, according to patent case analyst Florian Mueller. Part of what is causing the delay can almost certainly be attributed to the combination of the EC investigation along with the new consent decree Google agreed to accept after negotiations with the US government over numerous abusive practices by the company, as well as comments by Judge Richard Posner in a separate case on software patents.

One stipulation of the ten-year agreement Google signed (that has not yet been fully implemented by Google and Motorola) is the withdrawal of all court cases based on disputes over SEPs. Apple filed that document, along with the EC Statement of Objections against Samsung, with the ITC court last month.

It becomes increasingly likely that the ITC will bow to pressure from various US government agencies and throw out any portions of Samsung's case against Apple the pertains to SEPs, as several courts and the EC have already found that Apple is a "willing licensee" of SEP patents held by competitors in all but one instance. Should that ruling occur, it would have no effect on Apple's counter-complaint to the ITC about Samsung's patent infringement, as none of Apple's lawsuits -- in any court -- against other companies have involved SEPs.

Apple's complaint against Samsung has already had a preliminary ruling, and Samsung was found guilty of violating four Apple patents, though the full six-judge panel will weigh in on the final judgement. Samsung is facing the strong possibility of fines and sales bans in the matter. Both Apple and Samsung may appeal the ITC rulings to the US Federal courts if they lose.