Obama’s blatant protectionismIt is regrettable that U.S. President Barack Obama declined to veto an import ban on some Samsung Electronics smartphones and tablet computers, thus making Apple the winner in a much-publicized patent-infringement case. In August, the U.S. president, however, overturned a ban ordered by the U.S. International Trade Commission on sales of some older iPhones and iPads on grounds that Apple infringed on a Samsung patent.
The U.S. trade representative argued the two cases differed - the earlier case against Apple involved Samsung’s so-called standard-essential patents, which can be applied to technologies used by all players in the industry. But Apple’s case against Samsung hinged on exclusive design patents. Washington’s explanations cannot fully explain why Obama exercised his veto power against a trade ban for the first time in 25 years to protect American consumer interests. He cannot avoid criticism that he used his authority to protect a U.S. company and discriminated against a foreign rival.
The import ban applies mostly to older Samsung models and therefore should not deal a heavy blow to the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer. But it nevertheless cements the widespread notion that Apple is a smartphone technology creator, and Samsung is a copycat. That perception could cost a great deal.
What’s more worrisome are the ominous signs of a protectionist trade posture in Washington. The United States has so far led an international trend in intellectual property rights through litigation and penalties. It has argued strongly for beefed-up intellectual property rights from the members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Yet the Obama administration acted differently in the patent dispute between Apple and Samsung.
In view of balancing international trade issues and America’s global status, Obama should not have overturned the earlier ban against Apple products. The power of a veto against an ITC ruling should have been reserved for a serious threat to U.S. consumer interests, national security or social infrastructure.
The act of siding with a domestic company and yet doing the opposite against a foreign rival is blatant protectionism. Samsung Electronics plans to appeal. We will closely watch the episode until the end. The United States should act more wisely if it does not want to earn the reputation of discriminating against foreign companies and provoking a trade backlash.