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ITC rules in favor of Samsung, issues import ban on older AT&T iPhones, iPads


Once again the ugly patent battles between Apple and Samsung have come to a head, only this time it's Samsung enjoying a victory. According to Reuters and Bloomberg, the International Trade Commission has issued an order to Apple to stop importing AT&T models of the iPad 3G, iPad 2 3G, iPhone 4, 3GS and 3. While newer models of the iPhone and iPad no longer use the tech the ITC says is infringing (mostly iDevices with Qualcomm chips), this ban is final and can only be negated by the White House or challenged and overturned in a Federal circuit court. The ITC ruling is here in PDF form.

FOSS patents has a good breakdown of this case, noting that the ITC considered Apple's FRAND defense, then pretty much dismissed it. In other words, Apple argued there were standards-essential patents (SEPs) needed to make these products, and it was willing to license the infringing patents for a fair price. The ITC didn't see it that way and told Apple to stop importing the devices immediately.

I'm not a lawyer, and that's a huge oversimplification, but the idea is that Samsung shouldn't be able to hobble a competitor when a competitor needs certain tech to actually make a product. Patent holders should license those for a fair price instead of arguing a wholesale ban on the product after it is designed, developed, manufactured and sold. In this case, the ITC saw differently. As Nilay Patel points out, the ITC is largely out of step with everyone else when it comes to SEPs, however. And there are lawmakers from both parties now getting involved in the dispute -- we are talking about a rather profitable American business that just got handed a huge "stop making money" order, after all.

I'm sure to some this is seen as karma for Apple's other battles with Samsung, but I disagree. It's not like the patents we're talking about gave the iPhone some unique edge over the competition -- from what I can tell these were necessary components that at the time were the best engineering choice. Using communications chips is quite different than mimicking the look and feel of an operating system, or wholesale aping the design and functionality of another device.

Does this mean AT&T (and anyone else using the CDMA tech) will have to quit offering cheaper iPhones? Probably not. Companies have had to pull products before, although this would be a huge blow to AT&T and Apple, who have seen growth in new smartphone users who are upgrading to the iPhone from feature phones and taking advantage of the older devices. President Barack Obama has 60 days to review and potentially veto this, however. It's unlikely, but it's not like the White House is a huge fan of heavy-handed patent rulings, offering a big slap to patent trolls just today.

We'll keep you posted, but Apple appears to have spoken to CNBC, who tweeted that Apple will appeal and you won't see an impact on product availability in the US.

Update: AllThingsD quotes Apple directly with the news that it will appeal and this changes nothing for customers thus far.

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