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Thursday, November 29, 2012, 03:29 pm PT (06:29 pm ET)

ITC staff agrees with judge's finding of Samsung infringement of Apple patents

The U.S. International Trade Commission's Office of Unfair Import Investigation, otherwise known as "ITC staff," issued a filing in support of a preliminary finding from an administrative law judge that held Samsung in violation of four Apple patents.

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According to a redacted filing published on Thursday, as reported by FOSS Patents's Florian Mueller, the OUII found that ALJ Thomas Pender "did not commit legal or factual error" in his initial determination regarding Samsung's infringement of certain Apple patents. The support brings the ITC case one step closer to being resolved after both parties petitioned for a review, with Apple wanting broader sanctions while Samsung looks to protect its products from a possible sales ban.

Mueller noted that the ITC staff acts as a third party which defends public interest by offering recommendations to the body, however the guidance does not have to be followed by either the Commission or ALJs. The OUII didn't submit its own petition for review in this specific case, which could have been passive move in support of Judge Pender's initial decision.

From the filing:
For the foregoing reasons, the OUII submits that the Administrative Law Judge did not commit legal or factual error. As such, Respondents’ petition should be denied. With the exception of entering a conclusion of law that the SPH-M920 and associated accused products infringe claim 3 of the ‘501 patent, Complaint’s petition should also be denied.

The '501 patent is an Apple-held property covering a portable device's headset plug and accompanying detection circuitry, Claim 3 of which pertains to the monitoring whether the headset's microphone is activated. In the U.S., the infringing product is known as Sprint's Samsung Transform.

Mueller pointed out that if the Commission were to adopt the ITC staff recommendation, a sales ban as specified by the initial determination could be instituted "rather quickly," however such an injunction against legacy products would likely be meaningless if workarounds are already in place. It is unknown what impact a supporting Commission ruling would have, however, as Samsung's workarounds have yet to be revealed.

In its petition for review, Apple may be seeking a reversal of Judge Pender's finding of non-infringement for certain Samsung products regarding a design patent for the iPhone 3GS, as well as a similar judgment on a utility patent involving plug detection mechanisms. If the two assertions were to be validated by the Commission, the Samsung sales ban would be widened to include at least two more handsets.

As for Samsung's petition, the company is raising many of the issues already decided by Judge Pender, including claim construction, infringement and validity, and tacks on "prejudicial procedural errors" having to do with evidence submittal.

The ITC is also scheduled to review a separate complaint regarding a previous decision that cleared Apple of infringing on Samsung's wireless patents, with that final determination slated to come some time next year.