The latest chapter in the ongoing and messy Apple versus Qualcomm legal battle might mean a US import ban on some iPhone models. A US trade judge has found Apple guilty of infringing on two Qualcomm patents related to power management and data download speeds. As a result, the judge — International Trade Commission Judge MaryJoan McNamara — says some iPhone models containing competing Intel modems might be blocked from shipping from China, where they’re manufactured, to the US.
The judgment is still pending review by the ITC. And it’s possible that, on review, things could change: in a separate ITC ruling today, Qualcomm lost another opportunity for an iPhone ban after an initial finding of patent infringement was rejected by the full commission.
Regardless, McNamara’s recommendation for a ban is a blow to Apple, which, earlier this month, was found to have infringed on three separate Qualcomm patents in one of many other legal skirmishes playing out between the two companies.
Qualcomm was given a paltry $31 million for that verdict, but the San Diego-based chipmaker has been steadily building its legal case and collecting small victories ahead of a larger, more definitive trial next month. That’s when both companies will battle over the core argument that’s created the tech industry’s biggest legal quagmire since Apple’s battle with Samsung. That argument involves Qualcomm’s alleged anti-competitive licensing strategies and the patent royalties it claims Apple owes for disputing the terms of their long-standing relationship.
Apple and Qualcomm have been engaged in an industry-altering patent and licensing war stemming from a $1 billion lawsuit Apple filed more than two years ago. The original complaint has spiraled into a series of separate lawsuits involving patent infringement and countersuits aimed at pushing the legal battle into international territories, resulting in Qualcomm winning successful bans on older iPhone models in China and Germany.
All of this has led to a complete breakdown in the relationship between Apple and Qualcomm. The two companies previously had an exclusive licensing arrangement for the iPhone to use Qualcomm-made modems that are integral to bringing mobile devices online. In recent years, Apple has brought Intel into the fold as a modem supplier, and it appears that decision has had cascading effects that have led to today’s complex web of lawsuits. Qualcomm has also made the blockbuster claim that Apple effectively stole its technology and gave it to Intel, violating its patents in the process.
As a result of the feud, Apple has turned to Intel as the exclusive supplier of mobile modems for its iPhone line. Apple claims Qualcomm refused to sell it the parts it needed for its iPhone XS and XR line. The company may even be looking into building its own modem, according to recent job listings. Meanwhile, Qualcomm is still waiting for a final ruling in a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit over the same alleged anti-competitive practices that Apple says resulted in this entire mess in the first place.
Update March 26th, 5:10PM ET: Qualcomm lost in a second ruling from the ITC, released after this story was initially published. This story has now been updated to include the results.