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DOJ drops investigation into Samsung essential-patent use

The government says its inquiry is no longer necessary after the Obama administration overturned a ban on sales of Apple devices.

The Galaxy S4
Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
The US Justice Department on Friday ended its investigation into Samsung's use of standards-essential patents to exclude certain Apple devices from the US market, saying the inquiry is no longer necessary.

The government said in a press release that it no longer needs to investigate Samsung because of an Obama administration decision in mid-2013 to overturn a sales ban on certain Apple devices. Samsung had originally won an International Trade Commission ban against Apple, but the Obama administration determined that a sales ban would hurt competition in the US. In particular, it said the US needed to pay close attention to standards-essential patents and their licensing in order to promote "innovation and economic progress."

Samsung declined to comment on the DOJ ending its investigation.

Essential, or standard-essential, patents are handled differently than regular patents. When a company's patents are deemed standard and essential, it must offer them on a fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) basis. Apple has argued time and again that some of Samsung's wireless patents, which have been deemed standard-essential, are being offered on unfair terms, stifling competition.

Technology companies in recent years have increasingly turned to the ITC to settle their disputes. Companies can pursue an ITC case in parallel with civil lawsuits, and the threat of an embargo on products typically forces companies to settle more quickly.

Samsung's ITC victory in June of last year had centered on a wireless communications patent that covered technology found in some older iPhones and cellular-enabled iPads. That included iPhones prior to the iPhone 4S made for AT&T's network, as well as 3G-enabled versions of the iPad 1 and 2. Some of those models were still being sold by Apple and its carrier partners.

However, the Justice Department and US Patent and Trademark office have argued that patent holders could use the threat of a sales ban to impose tougher terms on the licensee. As a result, they have said sales bans should be used only rarely. The DOJ in 2012 launched an investigation into how Samsung used its essential patents.

The Justice Department on Friday said it will continue to monitor further developments in the area.

Despite Friday's action, the battle between Samsung and Apple over patents isn't done. The two companies will return to court in San Jose, Calif., at the end of March. That trial will cover newer gadgets, such as the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S3. The two companies have been ordered to hold settlement talks before the trial is scheduled to begin.

Reuters earlier reported the DOJ news.

Update, 11:23 a.m. PT: Added Samsung declining to comment.