Will the Apple-Samsung legal war turn into unfair competitive advantages? The European Union wants to find out.
The head of the EU's antitrust division said Tuesday that his agency was investigating the two companies' patent dispute. Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia told news media that the EU has requested information from both Apple and Samsung, but has not yet received answers.
"We need to look at this because [intellectual property] rights can be used as a distortion of competition," he said.
'Tool to Abuse'
Almunia noted that, in technology, standardization and IP rights "can be used as a tool to abuse." The EU has the authority to fine companies as much as 10 percent of their global revenue for violating its rules.
Apple has sued Samsung in a number of countries, with various successes thus far, contending that Samsung has violated patents and other intellectual property rights. Apple is also suing HTC and Motorola, and Samsung has countersued Apple.
Recently, the patent war compelled Samsung to tweak its Android-based Galaxy Tab tablet in one European market, in an attempt to route around a legal injunction obtained by Apple. Last week, Samsung released its Galaxy Tab 10.1N in Germany, in which the only discernible difference, in addition to the letter "N" being added to the model name, was that a metal frame, or bezel, wrapped around the edge of the device.
In August, Apple had won a preliminary injunction that blocked the original Galaxy Tab, the 10.1, because of an alleged design infringement. The injunction, which applies only in Germany for products made by the South Korean company, also claimed the Tab was an iPad imitation.
Another change made by Samsung, in order to get around a Dutch injunction obtained by Apple for a software infringement, is how software on its Galaxy smartphones allows users to flip through a photo gallery.
The tweaks are only tiny end-runs in a worldwide war. The main target of Apple's legal strikes, according to patent observer Florian Mueller, could be the Android platform itself -- either to slow down the march of Android devices, increase the cost to its makers, or ban the platform entirely in certain markets.
Mueller, whose Foss Patents site follows technology-related patents, has noted that, in another legal battle between Apple and Samsung in Australia, the relevant Apple patents were not tablet-specific. Rather, they are "very broad and can hardly be worked around, unlike various other intellectual property rights" that Samsung is attempting to work around in Europe.
In fact, Mueller said, the patents are so broad that he didn't believe any company will "be able to launch any new Android-based touchscreen product in Australia anytime soon without incurring a high risk" of legal action by Apple.
He said this could include any Android-based smartphone or tablet in that market and, if Apple won the final trial in its Australian lawsuit next year, Android touchscreen mobile devices would be banned in Australia -- unless Apple settled with Google or Samsung.
If the validity of the Apple patents at issue in Australia is upheld in the trial, Mueller said, "those are killer patents" that Google and its Android OEMS "must be very afraid of."