The Obama administration has lifted an import ban on some Apple iPads and older iPhone models, in a setback to rival South Korean electronics company Samsung.
US Trade Representative Michael Froman overruled a decision made in June by the US International Trade Commission, which had banned imports of the iPhone 4 and some variations of the iPad 2, ruling that the Chinese-made Apple devices violated a patent held by Samsung and thus could not be imported.
However, the ban never came into effect as the Obama administration had 60 days to decide if it would uphold the commission's decision.
President Obama does not favour import bans on the basis of the type of patent at issue in the Samsung case. The White House has recommended that Congress limit the ITC's ability to impose import bans in these cases.
Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet said the company applauded the administration "for standing up for innovation". Samsung said it was “disappointed” at the decision to veto the ban. “The ITC's decision correctly recognized that Samsung has been negotiating in good faith and that Apple remains unwilling to take a license,” it said in a statement.
Samsung and Apple, who make up almost half of the smartphone market, have been locked a bitter legal dispute over patents. Apple argues Samsung's Android phones copy vital iPhone features and Samsung is fighting back with its own complaints.
In a letter to the commission Mr Froman expressed concerns about patent holders possessing too much leverage over competitors that use their technology under licences, stating that he shared the Obama administration's fear that the holders of standards-essential patents could get "undue leverage" over their competitors.
Companies license patented technology to competitors so the devices can communicate as part of an industry standard for mobile phones. Under the "standards-essential patent" legal theory prevailing in US courts, holders of such patents are obligated to license them to all-comers on "fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory" terms.
US courts have ruled that such patents cannot be the basis for import bans. The International Trade Commission follows a different standard than the courts, but the Obama administration wants it to follow the same principles.
In 2012 a federal court ruled that Samsung owed Apple one billion dollars in damages for infringing on non-essential Apple patents. But the judge refused to impose an import ban on Samsung phones and later struck 450 million dollars from the verdict, saying the jurors miscalculated. The case is set for a rematch in the appeal court.
Samsung is the world's largest maker of smartphones. Analysts estimate it outsold Apple nearly two to one in the first three months of the year. However, Apple's smartphone business is more profitable.
The iPhone 4 was launched in 2010 and is the oldest iPhone still sold by Apple. The ITC ruling applied only to the AT&T version of the phone. Apple is likely to retire the model.
Apple launched the iPad 2 in 2011. The ruling applies only to the version equipped with a mobile modem for AT&T's network.
The ruling also applies to older iPhones, though these are no longer sold by Apple.
Additional reporting by agencies