EU Probed Samsung, Apple Phone Patents on Own Initiative

European Union regulators started an antitrust probe into Samsung Electronics Co. and Apple Inc.’s use of smartphone patents on their “own initiative” without waiting for a competitor to formally raise the issue.

Per Hellstroem, the head of the European Commission’s antitrust unit for consumer electronics, said in London today that the EU’s “preliminary investigation” is trying to determine the underlying facts about phone makers’ use of patents.

“There’s no formal complaint,” Hellstroem said at a conference organized by IBC Legal. “When we see that there are issues that may” potentially “involve competition issues we have the power to send requests for information to various parties.”

Samsung and Apple were questioned by the commission about “the enforcement of standards-essential patents in the mobile-telephony sector,” regulators said earlier this month. Apple said in a filing in a California court case last month that Samsung faced an EU antitrust investigation into its “egregious” misuse of patents.

The lack of a formal complaint doesn’t necessarily mean that companies hadn’t “drawn the attention of the commission to this issue,” said Simon Hirsbrunner, a lawyer at Heuking Kuehn Lueer Wojtek in Brussels. “The commission often resorts to ‘ex-officio probes’ when it does not wish to disclose the fact that there has been some kind of a more informal complaint.”

Hellstroem said regulators were “completely open-minded” on the use of patents and would intervene in commercial disputes “only in exceptional circumstances” where it was necessary “to enforce competition policy in the public interest.”

Apple and Samsung have filed at least 30 lawsuits against each other in 10 countries, according to Samsung. While Cupertino, California-based Apple has also sued Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. and HTC Corp. over phones using the same operating system, the company’s now-deceased founder Steve Jobs took particular interest in Samsung devices because of what he saw as blatant similarities to the sleek look of its iPhone and iPad tablet computer.

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