The patent battle between Apple and Samsung has just taken a very interesting turn.
The European Commission today announced that it has launched a formal investigation into whether Samsung has used wireless patents as an anticompetitive tool, in violation of its commitment to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute.
Samsung's lawsuits against Apple over the last year--claiming that the iPhone maker violates wireless patents Samsung holds--could come back to haunt the company. In fact, the EC, which is the executive arm of the European Union, said in its investigation discussion that Samsung has "sought injunctive relief in various Member States' courts against competing mobile device makers based on alleged infringements of certain of its patent rights which it has declared essential to implement European mobile telephony standards."
"The Commission will investigate, in particular, whether in doing so Samsung has failed to honor its irrevocable commitment given in 1998 to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) to license any standard essential patents relating to European mobile telephony standards on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms," the EC went on to say in a statement today. "The Commission will examine whether such behavior amounts to an abuse of a dominant position prohibited by Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU)."
The EC's decision to launch a formal investigation into Samsung's practices now is somewhat surprising. In November, the organization told CNET that it was conducting a preliminary investigation into Samsung's patent policies. In most cases, those preliminary investigations can take years to complete. However, this investigation took just months, meaning the EC quickly had all it needed to start diving into the matter.
"The launch of a full-blown investigation after a few months of preliminary investigations is an important step," FOSS Patents' Florian Mueller, someone who has been following the lawsuits between Apple and Samsung quite closely, wrote today in a blog post about the investigation. "This means European competition enforcers have received information, in response to questionnaires (sent to Apple, which may have informally complained, and Samsung) that warrant a more formal effort."
Throughout 2011, Samsung sued Apple over more than a dozen wireless-related patents, and so far, not a single court across the Euro zone has agreed with Samsung's charges. Apple, meanwhile, has been able to win a few patent cases of its own, including one in Germany that forced Samsung to take the Galaxy Tab 10.1 off store shelves.
But the EC isn't necessarily concerned about lawsuits. Instead, the organization wants to see if Samsung is intentionally not licensing, or unfairly trying to license, its patents to competitors--namely, Apple--to stifle competition across the EU. If the EC finds Samsung in violation of that, it could quickly squash the lawsuits being argued in courts across the continent.
The EC was quick to say that it will not "prejudge the outcome" of its Samsung investigation, but will "examine the case as a matter of priority," meaning its ruling could come sooner rather than later.
Samsung has not immediately responded to CNET's request for comment.