A U.S. trade agency handed Apple a significant victory Friday in its ongoing patent battle against rival Samsung.
The U.S. International Trade Commission ruled that Samsung violated two crucial mobile patents held by Apple and that products using the related technology should be banned from being imported into the U.S. The scope of the trade ban and exact products that it will cover has yet to be determined.
Still, the ruling carries important symbolic and strategic value as Apple seeks to establish that it was the true innovator and that Samsung had merely copied its products such as the iPhone and iPad. The decision also comes about a week after the Obama administration overturned a different ITC ruling that had favored Samsung and would have banned some older Apple products.
Taken together, the back-to-back patent victories gave a slight boost to Apple's position as both companies continue to press their attack in courts and government agencies around the globe.
"Coupled with the veto, it definitely puts Samsung back on the defensive," said Mark Lemley, a professor at Stanford Law School. "Samsung's phones can be blocked but Apple's can't."
One of the patents in Friday's ITC ruling covered the way a touch screen device interpreted and executed commands. The other patent involved technology in the headset plug. The ITC ruled that Samsung did not violate two other Apple patents.
"With today's decision, the ITC has joined courts around the world in Japan, Korea, Germany, Netherlands and California by standing up for innovation and rejecting Samsung's blatant copying of Apple's products," Apple representative Kristin Huguet said in a statement. "Protecting real innovation is what the patent system should be about."
Indeed, the next step is for each company to present a list of products that should or should not be banned under the ruling. Samsung can argue that certain products don't fall under the ban because they have created a kind of work-around technology or have removed a feature in question.
"The proper focus for the smartphone industry is not a global war in the courts, but fair competition in the marketplace," Samsung spokesman Adam Yates said in a statement. "Samsung will continue to launch many innovative products and we have already taken measures to ensure that all of our products will continue to be available in the United States."
Samsung also has 60 days to appeal the ruling to President Obama, as Apple did with an unfavorable ruling handed down in June. In that case, the ITC ruled Apple had violated a Samsung patent. The Obama administration overturned that decision, saying the type of patents involved those covering technologies widely adopted by the industry.
The two Apple patents involved in Friday's ruling are narrower, tied to more specific technologies. Still, the Obama veto last week had prompted the South Korean government to issue a statement it would closely watch today's ITC ruling for any hints of favoritism.
Meanwhile, attorneys for Apple and Samsung appeared in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia for a hearing regarding a ruling made by a federal judge in San Jose.
In that San Jose case last year, a jury ruled that Samsung had violated a variety of Apple mobile patents. The jury initially awarded Apple $1 billion, but the judge later reduced that by $450 million.
The judge declined Apple's request for a permanent injunction that would have blocked the sale of several older Samsung products. Apple appealed that decision to the D.C. court.
It's unclear when the D.C. court will make a decision on the case.
Florian Mueller, an international analyst and consultant who blogs about patent legal issues at FOSS Patents, said the D.C. case may ultimately be more pivotal in the overall patent skirmish between the two companies.
Still, Apple probably gained some momentum over the past week, Mueller wrote on his blog.
"Today's ITC ruling is significant because it gives Apple additional leverage in the near term," Mueller wrote. "All in all, today has been a good day for Apple, and the likelihood of Samsung accepting to settle on Apple's terms has definitely increased, though the dispute could also continue for another year or more."
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