U.S. Trade Agency Bans iPhones

Well, some of them anyway. The U.S. International Trade Commission has found that Apple infringed one of Samsung’s patents related to 3G technology and issued an injunction against the importation and sale of the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPad 3G, and iPad 2 3G.  These are not the latest models, but neither are they obsolete. (For a very helpful and thorough explanation of the issues in the case, check out Florian Mueller’s FOSS Patents blog.)

The outcome in this case offers an excellent example of why having a redundant patent litigation venue at the ITC with slightly different laws and procedures is bad public policy. If this patent had been litigated in federal district court, where the vast majority of patent litigation takes place, the judge would have refused to issue an injunction as contrary to the public interest—even if Apple egregiously and remorselessly infringed Samsung’s patent.

The patent at issue in the ITC investigation is what’s known as a standard-essential patent. This is a term for technology that’s so ubiquitous as to be necessary for interoperability within the industry (like 3G) and that the patent owner has agreed to license to anyone who makes a reasonable royalty offer (thus promoting it to become the industry standard). It is highly unlikely that a federal district court would issue an injunction against any product based on infringement of such a patent, because doing so would be excessively disruptive and unfair. In fact, the Justice Department and other antitrust agencies have argued that merely seeking an injunction based on one of these patents might violate antitrust law.

None of this matters at the ITC, where injunctive relief is the only remedy available. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court held that courts should award only monetary damages in patent cases unless there are special circumstances necessitating an injunction and doing so would not harm the public interest. The purpose and consequence of the Supreme Court’s decision was to prevent patent trolls from using small patents to get large settlements. But monetary damages are unavailable at the ITC, and the agency decided the Supreme Court’s ruling didn’t apply to them.

In the Apple-Samsung case, Apple claimed that Samsung’s request for royalties of 2.4 percent was unreasonably high. If the patent is worth less than 2.4 percent of the product’s value, an injunction against selling the entire phone is excessive. This is especially true when the technology is virtually impossible to design around. Rather than simply deciding who pays what to whom in a dispute that is mostly about licensing fees, a sales ban deprives consumers of choice in the market.

The good news is that efforts are underway in Washington to fix the problem of excessive remedies at the ITC. The White House released a proposal for patent reform this week that included a call “to enhance consistency in the standards applied at the ITC and district courts.” Specifically, they want the ITC to use the same public interest test that courts use before issuing an injunction (Rep. Devin Nunes made a very similar proposal last year). This is a good plan. It would likely have prevented the new iPhone ban and will do a lot to make the ITC less attractive to patent trolls.

Fixing problems at the ITC by making it more like district court litigation, however, shows very clearly how redundant and unnecessary it is to have two venues for patent litigation. Why should we have the ITC hearing patent cases in the first place?  There is no satisfactory answer to that question. As I argued in a Policy Analysis last year, the ITC’s power to investigate and exclude imports for patent infringement not only disrupts the proper functioning of the U.S. patent system, it also violates international trade rules. We could save ourselves a lot of trouble down the line by shutting the whole thing down.