The U.S. International Trade Commission has issued an exclusion order barring importation of certain older model Apple products for infringing a Samsung patent.  The case is significant because the infringed patent was standard essential and encumbered by a commitment to license on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.  Patent holders and potential defendants should carefully monitor further developments regarding the availability of injunctive relief for infringement of standard essential patents.

On June 4, 2013, the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) issued an exclusion order barring the importation and sale of several older model Apple iPhones and iPads for infringing a Samsung patent.  This in itself is unremarkable, as the patent laws permit patent holders to seek monetary and injunctive relief against anyone who infringes their patents, and injunctive relief is commonly granted to prevailing patent holders.  The ITC ruling is noteworthy, however, because the infringed patent was essential to the 3G standard and was subject to a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) licensing commitment.  The ruling therefore runs counter to views expressed by the U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies to the effect that injunctive relief should be disfavored when dealing with FRAND-encumbered standard essential patents (SEPs), underscoring the growing debate as to the appropriate balance between the rights of SEP holders under the patent laws and antitrust policy.

In September 2012, the presiding administrative law judge (ALJ) ruled that Apple had not infringed any of the patents-in-suit, and that one of those patents was invalid.  Samsung and the staff attorney from the ITC’s Office of Unfair Import Investigations petitioned for review of the ALJ’s decision.  The ITC then requested public comment on its authority to issue an import ban (which is in essence injunctive-type relief) on products that infringe SEPs.  (Monetary damages are not awarded in ITC cases.)  After receiving a number of comments, the ITC issued its decision modifying the ALJ’s construction of certain terms in one of the patents and holding that, as modified, Apple had infringed the patent.  The ITC determined that two of the three remaining patents were not invalid, but also not infringed, and the final of those patents was both invalid and not infringed.  Based on the infringement of one of Samsung’s patents, the ITC issued an import ban with one commissioner dissenting on public interest grounds.

The case arose as part of the broader ongoing intellectual property disputes between Apple and Samsung over popular consumer electronics devices.  The matter has been submitted to the White House and U.S. Trade Representative for a 60-day presidential review period, but it has been decades since an administration overruled an ITC exclusion order.  If the administration does not reverse the decision, Apple can appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

In a recent policy paper entitled “Policy Statement on Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments,” the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office argued that the ITC and the courts generally should not grant injunctive relief for infringement of SEPs.  The Federal Trade Commission argued the point even more forcefully in a statement submitted last year in ITC investigation 337-TA-752, In re Certain Gaming and Entertainment Consoles, Related Software, and Components Thereof, asserting that on the basis of its mandate to consider the public interest, the ITC should not issue exclusion orders related to FRAND-encumbered SEPs.  In support of their position, these agencies have advanced two principal arguments.  First, they assert that the fact that the patentee voluntarily agreed to license the patent on FRAND terms implies that money damages are a sufficient form of relief.  They therefore argue that if the patentee’s first priority was excluding others from using the patent, it would not have bound itself to FRAND terms or tried to secure the patent’s incorporation into a standard.

Second, the agencies argue that injunctive relief may enable patent “hold-ups” by SEP holders.  At the time a standard setting organization is deciding what technology to adopt, patentees often compete with one another as to whose technology will be adopted.  But once a standard is adopted and large investments are made based on that standard, sunk costs often make switching to a different technology or innovating around the patent prohibitively expensive.  Thus, a company wishing to have its patent incorporated into the standard typically must agree to license that patent on FRAND terms.  The antitrust agencies fear that SEP owners can use the threat of injunctive relief to extract above-FRAND royalties from rivals, and that these additional costs are likely to be passed on to consumers.  The agencies therefore argue that the public interest, which the ITC is charged with taking into account, counsels against exclusion orders in these circumstances.

On the other side of the ledger, SEP holders point out that when a patent holder agrees to license its patent on FRAND terms, it is only making a commitment about the terms on which it will grant a license, not surrendering any remedy afforded by the patent laws.  They go on to argue that the position staked out by the agencies places them in an untenable position because prospective licensees may not accept a proposed license on FRAND terms or may disagree with the SEP holder about whether the terms are, in fact, FRAND.  When a dispute arises over the terms on which a SEP will be licensed, patent holders have a legitimate interest in wanting to ensure their ability to pursue all remedies authorized under the patent laws.  These remedies afford patent holders the ability to protect their intellectual property rights and thereby promote innovation.  Making it more difficult to obtain injunctive relief on SEPs would diminish their incentive to invest in innovation, which is one of the fundamental objectives of the patent laws.

The recent ITC decision represents a clear win for SEP holders, but as noted above, it is subject to further review and possible appeal.  And in all events, the underlying policy debate will most assuredly continue.  As a consequence, it is incumbent both upon patent holders and potential defendants to continue to carefully monitor developments in evaluating the availability of injunctive relief in the context of SEPs.