South Korea is threatening to ban a wide collection of Apple’s iPhones and iPads over infringement of a key chip patent — but it’s waiting on the results of a challenge to the same patent by another infringer, Samsung. The ban could affect models that include the iPhone X, iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, iPad, and iPad Pro, as well as other devices using patented FinFET chip technology.
As BusinessKorea notes, the country’s Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy has been investigating Apple’s alleged infringement of top Korean science and research university KAIST’s patent on FinFET — a chip-shrinking technology that has been essential in recent mobile processors. Now used by multiple chipmaking foundries, FinFET was invented by a South Korean professor in 2001 and later patented, with KAIST’s IP arm KIP obtaining the rights.
KIP has already successfully sued Samsung for infringing the patent, winning a $400 million U.S. federal court judgment in June. Samsung has said that while it is using FinFET technology, its version was internally developed and differs from the patented version in a manner it “cannot externally reveal.” It is currently appealing the judgment and seeking to invalidate KIP’s patent in the U.S. and South Korea.
While the ministry hasn’t conclusively ruled on Apple’s infringement, it has indicated that it is likely to reach a final determination in KAIST’s favor, after which Apple’s devices could be banned. But there’s a twist: It won’t be able to hold Apple liable for infringement if Samsung succeeds in invalidating KAIST’s patent. As a result, the ministry says that it is awaiting the results of Samsung’s litigation before announcing or enforcing a ban on Apple’s products.
Both prospective patent users and accused patent infringers always have an alternative to litigation — namely, paying licensing fees to the patent holder — so Apple could, like Intel, simply settle and pay KAIST for use of the patented FinFET technology. However, large consumer product makers have continued to face countless suits from allegedly aggrieved patent holders, in some cases making settlement less appealing than waiting out the results of protracted international multi-party disputes such as this one.