On Saturday, the president vetoed a decision of the U.S. International Trade Commission for the first time in over 25 years. As a result, the United States will not be imposing an import ban on older iPhones despite the ITC’s finding that Apple infringed certain patents owned by Samsung. This action by the Obama administration is undoubtedly a good development, not just because you will still be able to get a free iPhone 4 when signing a 2-year contract, but because the veto simultaneously disciplines and discredits the ITC’s disruptive role in the U.S. patent system.
The president’s intervention corrects a bad decision by the ITC. The patents that Samsung accused Apple of infringing in the ITC investigation are standard technology required to run phones on a 3G wireless network. Owners of standard-essential patents must agree to license the technology on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms to anyone who asks. Samsung claimed at the ITC that Apple refused to pay any royalties at all, and Apple claimed that Samsung demanded an unreasonable royalty. The ITC sided with Samsung.
The ITC’s ruling has been controversial not because Samsung won the case, but because the ITC’s remedy—total exclusion of the infringing products from the U.S. market—is excessive.
If Samsung had brought its case in federal district court instead of the ITC, the judge would most likely have ordered Apple to pay the royalties it owed Samsung. An injunction against future sales would not be granted, because Samsung never had the right to keep Apple from using the technology in the first place, only to collect royalties.
As I wrote last month in anticipation of a potential presidential veto, this action by the president has a number of policy implications that go beyond the Apple–Samsung patent dispute. The Obama administration, leaders in Congress, and much of the tech industry have been converging lately on the idea that remedies for patent infringement at the ITC are too strict. The ITC should not be able to ban future sales in a situation where a district court would refuse to do the same thing. As it stands now, the ITC’s excessive remedies allow patent holders to wield more power than they should and exacerbate the ongoing struggle against patent trolls.
Korean press coverage of the issue has implied that the administration’s veto of Samsung’s patent victory against Apple amounts to “flagrant protectionism.” In a separate case, the ITC is set to decide later this week whether Samsung infringed patents owned by Apple. If the administration allows an import ban on Samsung products despite intervening to help Apple, many in Korea will surely cry foul.
A trade conflict would be a fitting consequence of mixing patent litigation with trade policy. It doesn’t make sense for President Obama to have the power to intervene in a patent case simply because he doesn’t approve of the outcome. Section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930, the law that enables the ITC to litigate patents, was designed as a protectionist trade remedy. The president’s veto power is meant to ensure that the ITC’s decisions don’t impede U.S. foreign or economic policy. If the ITC were a legitimate patent court, its decision would not be subject to executive override. The ITC is simply the wrong place to litigate patents, standard-essential or otherwise.