As an import ban on Apple products gets set to take effect two weeks from now, a Verizon executive is asking the White House to take the unusual step of intervening with the U.S. trade agency that imposed the ban.
In a plea published in the Wall Street Journal this week, Verizon’s head lawyer, Randal Milch, argues that the International Trade Commission should not have scheduled an import ban on the iPhone 4 and iPad 2 for violating a patent held by Samsung, and that President Obama should exercise his veto power over the agency.
“Unless the administration intervenes, the ban could be in effect by August 5,” writes Milch, adding that the President should signal he will veto this decision and other situations where an infringing patent isn’t that important to the overall product. In the case of smartphones, there are over 250,000 patents that conceivably apply to them, meaning that patents have become strategic weapons that Apple, Samsung and other device makers use to harass their rivals.
Ordinarily, companies sue each other over patent infringement in court. In the last decade, however, they have discovered that the ITC, which is like a Customs agency, is a faster way to press patent claims. The agency’s only tool if it finds infringement is an import ban.
That’s what occurred in June when the ITC found that Apple infringed on a Samsung patent related to encoding technology. In previous cases, including one involving Google’s Android phones, the agency has allowed companies time to tweak their product in order to find a workaround. This time, the ITC provided no such reprieve — meaning that Apple and its partners could run out of the still-popular iPhone 4 in the near future. In a filing last week, Apple warned that the ban will “sweep away an entire segment of Apple’s product offerings.”
While presidents can intervene during the 60 days it takes for an ITC order takes effect, none have done so since President Reagan vetoed an import ban in 1987.
As the Verizon lawyer notes, the case does not have a direct effect on the company because “the products at risk of being stopped at the border run on AT&T’s network not ours.”