Europe’s competition watchdog is investigating the increasingly aggressive legal tactics being used in Samsung’s patent battle with Apple, in what could pave the way for an in-depth antitrust probe into the hotly contested intellectual property agreements that underpin the smartphone technology market.
The preliminary enquiry, which touches on patents that are essential to the 3G mobile communications standard, highlights growing unease in Brussels about the way that important technology standards are being dragged into the IP disputes between some of the world’s biggest technology companies.
Friday’s confirmation of the European Commission’s interest in the case is “a warning shot” that shows wider unease over the potential impact on important technology standards, said Florian Mueller, an independent intellectual property expert who was the first to report the case.
The two technology groups have received requests for information from Brussels, in a process used to establish facts before regulators make a decision to launch a full investigation, which could last for several years. In a statement, the Commission said it had sent “requests for information to Apple and Samsung concerning the enforcement of standards-essential patents in the mobile telephony sector”.
The wording pointed to official concerns with Samsung’s legal strategy, since it is the only one of the two to have tried to enforce patents that play a role in industry-wide standards. Patents included in legal cases Samsung has brought against Apple include 13 that underpin the 3G mobile standard, said Mr Mueller.
Companies that own patents enshrined in industry standards face extra responsibilities to license them, since access to the intellectual property is essential for any company hoping to compete in a market where standards apply, as in mobile communications. Brussels has revealed its concerns in this area before, for instance in its investigation into Qualcomm over the terms under which the US company was prepared to license its own patents that are core to 3G.
Samsung said it was “co-operating fully” with the EC’s request, and that it “at all times remained committed to fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory licensing terms for our wireless standards-related patents”.
Apple declined to comment.
The EC enquiry could play a wider role in shaping the patent wars, with Apple close to acquiring important mobile patents from Nortel, and Google in the process of buying Motorola Mobility. Many of Motorola’s most important patents also concern technologies that play an important role in mobile communications standards.
The commitments companies such as Motorola have made to standards bodies to make their technologies widely available will make it hard for them to use the patents for leverage in the legal battles .
“Unless Google is going to flout those obligations, I don’t see how the acquisition changes things in a significant way,” said Brad Smith, general counsel of Microsoft.