ITC to investigate Nvidia patent complaint against Samsung

Nvidia last month accused Samsung and Qualcomm of ripping off its graphics patents in devices such as the Galaxy Note Edge, Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy S5 smartphones.

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Nvidia says the Samsung Galaxy Note Edge infringes its patents. CNET

The US International Trade Commission on Monday voted to investigate Nvidia's patent complaints against Samsung and chipmaker Qualcomm.

The group will determine whether certain Samsung devices -- including the Galaxy Note Edge, Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy S5 -- should be banned from sale in the US because the chips powering the products infringe graphics patents owned by Nvidia.

"We are pleased with the ITC decision today to open an investigation and look forward to presenting our case on how Nvidia GPU patents are being used without a license," David Shannon, Nvidia executive vice president and chief administrative officer, said in a statement.

Samsung did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Qualcomm didn't immediately have a comment.

Nvidia, which is best known for making graphics chips for PCs, last month filed lawsuits involving seven of its patents with the ITC and US District Court in Delaware. At the time, the Santa Clara, Calif., said it asked the ITC to block shipments of several Samsung smartphones and tablets to the US and requested the district court award damages for the alleged infringement.

At question is whether chips made by Samsung and Qualcomm infringe Nvidia's patents related to graphics. Samsung has tended to use Qualcomm's processors in its high-end devices. The Note 4, for instance, uses a Snapdragon 805 chip. Samsung also uses its own Exynos chips in some models, particularly those sold in Korea. The devices mentioned in the suit involve Qualcomm's Adreno graphics, ARM Holdings' Mali technology and Imagination's PowerVR graphics architecture, which are three of Nvidia's main competitors in mobile graphics.

The products involved include several major devices from Samsung -- the largest smartphone maker in the world -- including the Galaxy Note Edge and Note 4 smartphones, which Samsung unveiled Wednesday, as well as the company's flagship Galaxy S5 and Galaxy S4 phones. The Note 3 was also mentioned, as were several Samsung tablet computers, including the Galaxy Tab S, Tab 2 and Note Pro .

Since the litigation involves hundreds of millions of Samsung devices, potential damages from a successful suit could be huge for Nvidia. "The volume here alone makes the potential very significant," Shannon told CNET last month.

Nvidia's suit is only the latest in a series of lawsuits in the hot mobile sector. Samsung has been battling Apple for the past several years over technology used in its smartphones and tablets. The two companies in August agreed to settle all disputes outside the US, but their lawsuits continue in the country. Microsoft also has sued Samsung, saying it didn't live up to its patent licensing agreement for technology used in Android tablets and smartphones.

Companies have tended to file lawsuits with the ITC to speed up the process. Civil suits could take years to go to trial, and they're often held up for even longer in the appeals process. And even when they end, the money involved often isn't enough to deal a real blow to the company found at fault. An ITC sales ban, however, could severely hurt a company's profits. Nvidia last month estimated that an an ITC trial wouldn't happen until mid-2015 and a US district trial wouldn't come for another two to three years.

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