ITC agrees to investigate Samsung's patent case against Apple

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The U.S. International Trade Commission announced on Wednesday that it will investigate Samsung's patent infringement claims that have been levied against Apple.

Samsung filed the complaint in late June, and asked the ITC to ban the import of Apple products, which it believes are infringing on patents it owns. The complaint accused Apple of copying "many of Samsung's innovations" with the company's iPhone, iPad and iPod products singled out.

That the ITC has agreed to investigate the case doesn't mean much in and of itself, as the commission pursues a formal review of nearly every high-profile complaint it receives. Final decisions from the commission are typically issued within 16 to 18 months.

The ITC said Wednesday that its determination will come at "the earliest practicable time," and promised that it will set a target date for completing the investigation within 45 days after it has begun.

The case will be assigned to one of the ITC's five administrative law judges, who will schedule and hold an evidentiary hearing. The judge will then make an initial determination, and that determination will be subject to review by the full commission.

The same format is currently playing out in Apple's lawsuit against HTC. Earlier this month, an ITC judge ruled that HTC has violated two of Apple's patents, and the commission will issue a final determination on that initial judgment.

The courtroom battle between Apple and Samsung began in April, when Apple first sued Samsung for allegedly copying the look and feel of its mobile devices, specifically the iPhone and iPad. In subsequent filings, Apple has even referred to Samsung in court as "the copyist."

The growing legal battle makes for an uneasy situation between the two companies, as the success of the iPhone and iPad has made Apple the largest customer of Samsung. Apple is expected to buy some $7.8 billion in components from Samsung this year.

Apple executives maintain that, in spite of the dispute, Samsung remains a valuable partner in supplying components for the devices. But, rumors have swirled that Apple is planning to move away from Samsung when it begins production of the so-called "A6" processor in 2012. Apple will reportedly turn to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company for production of the chip.

High-profile lawsuits in the smartphone market have become a common part of doing business. Nokia and Apple were engaged in mutual complaints with the ITC accusing the other of patent infringement, but that issue was resolved with an out-of-court settlement in June, in which Apple agreed to pay an undisclosed licensing fee to Nokia.