US agency bans iPhone 4 imports

iphone 4A US trade agency has issued a ban on imports of Apple's iPhone 4 and a variant of the iPad 2 after finding the devices violate a patent held by South Korean rival Samsung Electronics.

Because the devices are assembled in China, the import ban would end Apple's ability to sell them in the US.

The US International Trade Commission (ITC) issued a final ruling in Samsung's complaint against Apple. President Barack Obama has 60 days to invalidate the order. Apple can appeal.

Samsung and Apple are engaged in a global legal battle over their smartphones, with Apple arguing that Samsung and its Android phones copy vital features of the iPhone. Samsung is fighting back with its own claims.

Last year, a federal court ruled that Samsung owed Apple one billion dollars in damages for infringing on non-essential Apple patents. But the judge refused to impose an import ban on Samsung phones and later struck 450 million dollars from the verdict, saying the jurors miscalculated. The case is set for a rematch in the appeals court.

Samsung is the world's largest maker of smartphones. Analysts estimate it outsold Apple nearly two to one in the first three months of the year. However, Apple's smartphone business is more profitable

Apple said it was "disappointed" with the ruling and will appeal.

The iPhone 4 was launched in 2010 and is the oldest iPhone still sold by Apple. The ITC ruling applies only to the AT&T version of the phone. Apple is likely to retire the model in a few months with the launch of this year's new iPhone model.

Apple launched the iPad 2 in 2011. The ruling applies only to the version equipped with a cellular modem for AT&T's network. The ruling also applies to older iPhones, though these are no longer sold by Apple.

Patent consultant and analyst Florian Mueller said the ITC ruling was a surprise, as the basis of Samsung's complaint is a so-called "standards-essential patent", describing a technology that is part of an industry standard for mobile phone communications. Under the dominant legal theory, holders of such patents are obligated to license them to all comers on "fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory" terms. Courts have ruled that such patents cannot be the basis for import bans. Mueller, who was not involved with either party in the case, said Samsung reserved the right to allege infringement by Apple products designed for networks other than AT&T's.

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