In a further twist in the global legal battle waged by technology giants around the use of patents, Samsung Electronics is to be investigated by the European Union to assess whether it breached antitrust rules by refusing to provide rivals access to its technology at reasonable prices.
Brussels will be looking into whether the South Korean technology giant, the world’s biggest smartphone manufacturer but also a key supplier to rivals such as Apple, had distorted the market by withholding “standard essential patent rights”.
The European Commission, acting as the EU’s antitrust enforcer, said its investigation stems from Samsung’s lawsuits against competing groups, notably Apple, launched in several EU member states in 2011.
Its actions follow a preliminary inquiry, launched in November, which touched on patents that are essential to the 3G mobile communications standard.
It highlights growing unease in Brussels about the way that important technology standards are being dragged into the intellectual property disputes between some of the world’s biggest technology companies.
The Commission’s concerns revolve around Samsung’s control of patents that the EU deems are essential for the implementation of an industry standard.
In particular, it is worried that Samsung may be in breach of an irrevocable commitment made in 1998 to license some of its technology on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.
“This [fair licensing] commitment serves to ensure effective access to the standardised technology,” it said in a statement.
“In order to guarantee undistorted competition and to reap the positive economic effects of standardisation it is important that [fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory] commitments be fully honoured by the concerned undertakings,” it added.
Samsung has locked horns with Apple, maker of the popular iPhone and iPad tablet, over whether its own Galaxy tablet too closely resembles that of its US rival.
The Commission has the power to impose fines worth up to 10 per cent of global turnover on errant companies, though its penalties seldom approach that level for large multinationals.
Samsung was not immediately available for comment.