The European Union's top antitrust authority has launched an investigation into Samsung's use of patents to block sales of Apple products.
The news will be a boost to Apple in the ongoing legal battles between the two companies.
Samsung has sued Apple in five E.U. countries alleging infringement of its patents on 3G mobile technology. The European Commission will now consider whether the South Korean company is abusing the principle of fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) licensing in these cases.
FRAND licences allow companies to develop open standards for systems such as 3G mobile networks by sharing information and technology. Standards bodies typically require that companies participating in the development of a standard agree to license any relevant patents they hold on FRAND terms if their technology is essential to the standard. That's notably the case with the 3G Partnership Project, which maintains the standards for UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) 3G mobile networks. The aim is to allow the industry to work smoothly and give more choice to consumers. Samsung and Apple are both 3GPP members.
Samsung brought its cases against Apple in retaliation for Apple's claims that Samsung was imitating its products. In a recent California court filing, Apple said: "Samsung's efforts to coerce Apple into tolerating Samsung's imitation have not been limited to counterclaims. Samsung has launched an aggressive, worldwide campaign to enjoin Apple from allegedly practicing Samsung's patents."
However on Friday Samsung replied: "Samsung has at all times remained committed to fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory licensing terms for our wireless standards-related patents. We have received a request for information from the Commission and are cooperating fully. Note that this is a preliminary investigation and the European Commission has not yet determined whether to conduct a full investigation."
In a preliminary investigation the Commission requests information from the concerned parties. Such requests for information are standard procedure in antitrust investigations to allow the Commission to establish the relevant facts in a case. If there is sufficient evidence the the EU's competition rules have been broken a wider investigation will then follow.
If the Commission finds that Samsung is guilty of antitrust infringements, it could force Samsung to drop its legal cases against Apple in Europe, with possible repercussions on other cases worldwide. The Commission also has the power to impose fines.