European Union regulators today announced the launch of a formal investigation of Samsung over mobile patents to determine whether the South Korean conglomerate breached EU antitrust rules in its legal dealings with competitors. The investigation is focused on so-called FRAND patents, a common rule that stipulates a patent applying to the standard must be adopted on “fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms” (FRAND). According to the press release, EU regulators want to figure out whether Samsung “used certain of its standard essential patent rights to distort competition in European mobile device markets, in breach of EU antitrust rules.”

The Commission reminds that Samsung a decade ago promised to let rivals license its mobile patents under FRAND terms. The full-blown investigation comes in the light of the lawsuits Samsung filed against Apple at courts in Germany, France, the Netherlands and other countries around the world, asserting copyright infringement related to patents essential to wireless telecommunications standards.

The case is “a matter of priority,” the document reads. Patent blogger explained, “The European Commission can’t wait until Samsung finally wins a ruling based on such a patent and enforces it, potentially causing irreparable harm.” The full text of the European Commission Antitrust Commission announcement can be found below.

Last week, a court in Mannheim, Germany ruled against Samsung in two out of three patents involving mobile technology. The court will decide on the third patent on March 2. Samsung also dropped 3G-related suits against Apple last November in Germany. The company wanted to slap Apple with a 2.4 percent royalty on chip prices for every patent and recently request that Apple reveal terms of its partnership with chipmaker Qualcomm. Of course, Samsung is innocent until proven guilty of abuse. Be that as it may, it is admittedly be interesting to watch this unfold, particularly seeing whether the investigation affects Motorola Mobility. Remember, Motorola dealt a potentially huge blow to Apple’s interests in Europe last November, even though it has yet to enforce a EU-wide injunction on sales of iOS devices.

Cross-posted on Google.

Brussels, 31 January 2012 – The European Commission has opened a formal investigation to assess whether Samsung Electronics has abusively, and in contravention of a commitment it gave to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), used certain of its standard essential patent rights to distort competition in European mobile device markets, in breach of EU antitrust rules. The opening of proceedings means that the Commission will examine the case as a matter of priority. It does not prejudge the outcome of the investigation.

In 2011, Samsung 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 honour 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 Commission will examine whether such behaviour amounts to an abuse of a dominant position prohibited by Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU).

In line with the Commission’s Guidelines on standardisation agreements (see IP/10/1702 and MEMO/10/676), standard setting organisations, including ETSI, require the owners of patents that are essential for the implementation of a standard to commit to license these patents on FRAND terms. This commitment serves to ensure effective access to the standardised technology. Such commitments were given to ETSI by many patent holders, including Samsung, when the third generation (“3G”) mobile and wireless telecommunications system standards were adopted in Europe.

In order to guarantee undistorted competition and to reap the positive economic effects of standardisation it is important that FRAND commitments be fully honoured by the concerned undertakings.

Background on antitrust investigations
Article 102 TFEU prohibits the abuse of a dominant position which may affect trade and prevent or restrict competition. The implementation of this provision is defined in the Antitrust Regulation (Council Regulation No 1/2003) which can be applied by the Commission and by the national competition authorities of EU Member States.

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