Samsung may have found a way to strike a hefty blow to the United States’ burgeoning right to repair movement. It has approached the International Trade Commission (ITC), requesting an investigation into the importation of third-party OLED displays for independent repair stores. And if the ITC finds in Samsung’s favor it would, in the words of Louis Rossmann (who published the text of the complaint), “fire a kill shot on the entire repair industry.”
Put simply, Samsung’s claim says that it creates AMOLED displays for mobile devices, and that those displays are covered by a number of patents. But factories in China (and elsewhere) are, according to Samsung, churning out similar screens that infringe upon those patents. And that these screens are often imported by third-party repair businesses in the US as a cheaper option than buying authorized parts directly from, in this case, Samsung.
Several businesses are named in Samsung’s complaint, including MobileSentrix, Injured Gadgets and DFW Cellphone & Parts. Many offer wholesale parts and equipment to other repair companies, as well as their own over-the-counter repair service. Samsung wants the ITC to issue orders blocking the importation of these replacement display parts at the border. It has also requested that the named companies be ordered to stop importing, selling or using the products in question.
Now, Samsung is well within its right to protect its intellectual property, even if it’s going about it in a very interesting way. Rather than address the violating factories directly by seeking remedy where those businesses operate, it’s opting instead to block imports into the US. Given the cavalier manner that foreign IP is treated in some parts of the world, it may be easier to go after the customer than it is to attack the suppliers. Samsung’s lawyers did not respond to our requests for comment at the time of publication.
On January 4th, 2023, the ITC announced that it would open an investigation into the import activity under section 337 of the Tariff Act (1930). This gives the ITC broad latitude to look into if the act of importing a product into the US would harm a business operating here. That includes both the infringement of registered patents, as well as the “misappropriation of trade secrets.” And the remedies on offer include the prohibition on further imports as well as the blanket ban on further attempts to acquire this hardware.
The ITC has become a useful tool in corporate America’s arsenal when looking to avoid a drawn-out courtroom battle. Law firm Meyer Brown’s report on section 337 explains that companies use Commission because it offers a “highly accelerated procedure” and “powerful remedies” which are “not available in federal courts.”
If Samsung’s request is successful, it could prevent large volumes of third-party OLED displays from being imported to the US. This would have consequences for the small and medium-sized repair businesses that have grown up around repairing broken smartphone screens. It would also funnel significantly more people toward Samsung’s network of authorized service centers.
Few individuals are willing to speak on the record concerning the present state of Android device repair for fear of souring already-strained supplier relationships. We heard from multiple sources that the perpetually under-fire third-party Apple repair ecosystem is luxurious compared to its Android equivalent. One individual, who asked not to be named, said it was often difficult to source replacement parts for Android handsets, which regularly cost more than those for equivalent Apple products.
Another said that standalone Android repair businesses often struggle to stay afloat since they have to charge higher prices for display replacement. And many customers, when shown the potential cost, prefer to ditch their device in favor of replacing it outright. (We noted, too, that on Samsung’s US cracked display support page, the first option in the list is to upgrade your phone rather than opting for a screen replacement.)
In its case to the ITC, Samsung says that it has “sufficient manufacturing capacity” to “assure demand is met for OLED displays as replacement,” which are “supplied through authorized channels.” We could not contact anyone inside Samsung’s authorized repair channels for comment, but one independent repairer who claimed knowledge of the situation said that wasn’t necessarily the case. They believe that Samsung repairers often face long wait times for replacement parts, and that the company often can’t fulfill demand quickly enough.
The Repair Association and US Public Interest Research Group issued a joint submission to the ITC on January 12th, which was shared with Engadget. It said Samsung was behaving in a manner contrary to the US’ present push to reduce the proliferation of e-waste. They added the move was likely anti-competitive and designed to box out independent repair technicians. And that, if Samsung is concerned about patent infringement, it should seek to negotiate with the infringing factories directly or propose “fair and reasonable” licensing terms.
When contacted, the ITC said that it did not comment on ongoing matters, and it will likely be some time before we learn its decision. Rossmann, in a YouTube video posted to his channel, added that this may not just affect Samsung displays, but also any OLED display supplied by Samsung. Which includes a number of displays for iOS devices, given that Samsung Display reportedly supplies 70 percent of all screens for iPhones. Which means that, if the ITC interprets this in the broadest possible terms, the right to repair movement may be in for a long battle.