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Google unit faces antitrust action in EU

BRUSSELS — The European Commission on Monday made a preliminary antitrust finding against Google’s mobile communications unit, Motorola Mobility, for seeking and enforcing an injunction against Apple in Germany over patents essential to smartphones and tablets.

The finding, which could lead to a steep fine, comes as the commission tries to ensure that companies do not wield their patent portfolios to block others from using the technologies vital to developing some of the most popular consumer electronics.

“I think that companies should spend their time innovating and competing on the merits of the products they offer — not misusing their intellectual property rights to hold up competitors to the detriment of innovation and consumer choice,” Joaquín Almunia, the European Union’s competition commissioner, said in a statement.

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Motorola Mobility obtained an injunction from a German court preventing Apple from using patents called standard-essential for the industry.

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The commission said it regarded some injunctions to enforce patent claims as legitimate. But it said that holders of standard-essential patents who had already agreed to fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory licensing terms had to meet certain standards before resorting to injunctions.

Google referred questions to Katie Dove, a spokeswoman for Motorola, who said the company had followed the procedure in a German court ruling.

“We agree with the European Commission that injunctions should only be sought against unwilling licensees,” Dove said in a statement.

Motorola has two months to respond to the charges.

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Of concern to regulators in Europe is how certain national courts, in particular in Germany, have made it relatively easy to win injunctions in such cases, and how that could eventually result in a manufacturer having to take a popular device off the market.

“The patent wars are now widespread,” said Michael A. Carrier, a Rutgers Law School professor who specializes in antitrust law. “But there hasn’t yet been an injunction that has really taken phones out of people’s pockets, and that’s probably one thing that the Europeans are probably really worried about.”

Google completed its acquisition of Motorola Mobility last year to take advantage of patents to bolster its Android operating system. Google picked up 17,000 patents, including many relating to wireless devices that Motorola had pledged to license on reasonable terms.