Europe opens antitrust investigation into Samsung patents

Samsung is being formally investigated by the European Commission's antitrust authorities, over claims it "abusively" distorted competition in the region.

Samsung is in hot water with the Europeans; a position no company would like to be in.

The European Commission, the executive body for Europe's 27 member states, has opened a formal investigation into Samsung, only months after it said it would look into the matter.

In November, the Commission began scrutinising Samsung, examining whether the enforcement of standards-essential patents was fair.

But the announcement of a formal investigation today means that the Commission will examine the case "as a matter of priority".

The investigation seeks to determine whether Samsung has "abusively" used protected patents to "distort competition" in the mobile market of phones and smartphones.

These protected patents, also known as "standards-essential", enable devices and networks to comply with an industry standard, such as 3G or Wi-Fi networking.

In a statement, the Commission said that last year, Samsung sought sales injunctions against competitors, including Apple, from selling devices that infringed its patents that Samsung owns. Yet in 1998, around the time of the 3G 'boom', Samsung made a promise to the Commission to license its patents-essential to others 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 European law, the statement added.

Samsung has been seen to be heavy handed in its enforcement of 3G patents against Apple in recent months. The Commission said it would act based on Samsung's claims of patent infringement in European courts last year.

Samsung was forced by the Commission to licence its patents on a fair basis, but Apple claims it did not receive such terms until after Samsung had sued it.

FOSS Patents author Florian Mueller notes that "the EU's concerns appeared to relate to Samsung's, not Apple's, conduct." He added that: "The Commission said that its concerns related to patents essential to wireless telecommunications standards, and Apple has never sued anyone over a patent of that kind."

If a company is found to be in breach of European antitrust and competition laws, the Commission can fine a company up to 10 percent of its global turnover. In Samsung's case, this could be in the region of $10---15 billion (€8---11 billion).

Image source: Alexander Koellner/Flickr.