The White House has refused to intervene to stop an import ban on Samsung devices alleged to breach Apple patents. It may be the correct decision on the facts of the case, but certainly creates a politically awkward situation.
As we detailed yesterday, Apple and Samsung have each persuaded the International Trade Commission (a US agency) to ban imports of the other’s products this year. Both bans were subject to review by the President’s office, something that has been a formality for most of the past 40 years.
Back in August, the Obama administration decided to block the ban on Apple products, ruling the patent itself was too much in question to justify the effects a ban would have on competition.
Yesterday was the deadline for the Samsung ban, which involves Apple patents on recognizing fingers on a touchscreen, and the way the audio socket works on mobile devices.
Michael Froman, the official appointed by Obama to represent him in such rulings, has now noted that “After carefully weighing policy considerations, including the impact on consumers and competition, advice from agencies, and information from interested parties, I have decided to allow [the import ban].”
Samsung hasn’t yet publicly revealed exactly which devices will be affected, though it appears they are largely older models that mean the ban will have little if any effect on its US sales. The company has, however, said the ruling will reduce competition and choice.
Despite the apparent symmetry, the two cases are different enough that it’s not blatantly unreasonable to come to differing conclusions. The Samsung patents involved technological standards, meaning that Apple may have had an argument for violating them if Samsung didn’t make them available for license at a reasonable rate. The Apple patents appear more solid and Samsung’s violation more blatant.
However, even before the White House ruling, Samsung was trying to portray the idea that Obama might unfairly favor an American company at the expense of a South Korean rival.