Samsung's European legal woes don't look to be abating anytime soon, as the EU today formally launched an investigation into the Korean manufacturers' competitive practices. At issue are, not surprisingly, a collection of patents that Samsung has used to launch a series of lawsuits against rival companies. The manufacturer maintains that these patents are essential to complying with European mobile standards, but the EU says Samsung may be in violation of a promise it made more than ten years ago. Back in 1998, the firm said it would license these essential telephonic patents to competing manufacturers, under the terms outlined in FRAND. The Commission explained the obligation and its potential ramifications in the following statement:

The Commission will investigate, in particular, whether in doing so (seeking injunctions on patent infringements in 2011) Samsung has failed to honor its irrevocable commitment given in 1998 to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute to license any standard essential patents relating to European mobile telephony standards on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. The Commission will examine whether such behavior amounts to an abuse of a dominant position prohibited by Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU.

No word yet on how long the investigation may take, but we'll be sure to keep you updated going forward.

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Antitrust: Commission opens proceedings against Samsung

Brussels, 31 January 2012 - The European Commission has opened a formal investigation to assess whether Samsung Electronics has abusively, and in contravention of a commitment it gave to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), used certain of its standard essential patent rights to distort competition in European mobile device markets, in breach of EU antitrust rules. The opening of proceedings means that the Commission will examine the case as a matter of priority. It does not prejudge the outcome of the investigation.

In 2011, Samsung sought injunctive relief in various Member States' courts against competing mobile device makers based on alleged infringements of certain of its patent rights which it has declared essential to implement European mobile telephony standards. The Commission will investigate, in particular, whether in doing so Samsung has failed to honour its irrevocable commitment given in 1998 to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) to license any standard essential patents relating to European mobile telephony standards on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. The Commission will examine whether such behaviour amounts to an abuse of a dominant position prohibited by Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU).

In line with the Commission's Guidelines on standardisation agreements (see IP/10/1702 and MEMO/10/676), standard setting organisations, including ETSI, require the owners of patents that are essential for the implementation of a standard to commit to license these patents on FRAND terms. This commitment serves to ensure effective access to the standardised technology. Such commitments were given to ETSI by many patent holders, including Samsung, when the third generation ("3G") mobile and wireless telecommunications system standards were adopted in Europe.

In order to guarantee undistorted competition and to reap the positive economic effects of standardisation it is important that FRAND commitments be fully honoured by the concerned undertakings.

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Samsung faces EU antitrust investigation over mobile patents