Samsung calls for ban on ‘non-original’ OLED screens in US, dealing serious blow to right-to-repair efforts

Samsung could put a damper on the right-to-repair movement for electronic devices in the United States. The company has asked the International Trade Commission (ITC) for an investigation into the importation of third-party OLED displays for independent repair shops. If the results of the ITC report turn out to be in Samsung’s favor, the company could, deal a “death blow” to the entire repair industry, according to Louis Rossman, a technology YouTuber who also owns an electronics service.

Samsung claims OLED screens used by unauthorized service shops are using its unlicensed technology

Samsung’s complaint says its AMOLED displays for mobile devices are covered by several patents, and factories in China (and elsewhere) are producing similar displays that infringe those patents. Samsung apparently even holds patents on how the pixels in an OLED panel are arranged, something hard to avoid in the production of these components. These displays are imported by independent repair businesses from the US as a cheaper service option than with original Samsung parts.

In the wake of this, Samsung wants the ITC to issue orders to block imports of these screens at the border from getting into the hands of independent service businesses. It has also requested that the companies in question be ordered to stop imports, sales or use of the products in question.

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Samsung seems to be trying to protect intellectual property, but it’s doing it in a not-so-usual way. Instead of directly addressing patent-infringing factories, it chooses to block imports into the US. The company seems to have resorted to these measures presumably because legal action in China on the issue has proved futile. Samsung has long accused BOE and other manufacturers in China of stealing trade secrets used in the production of OLED panels.

In the absence of these components, Samsung claims it has the production capacity to support demand in the repair market, but those who have worked in repair centers working with the company in the past say this is not necessarily true. Samsung doesn’t always have the necessary components in stock, and deliveries can be very late.

In the wake of the complaint, the import of unlicensed components from the U.S. could be halted, leaving servicers without access to parts

The ITC has announced that it will open an investigation into import activity under Section 337 of the Tariff Act (1930). This gives the ITC wide latitude to check whether the action of importing a product into the US could harm a business operating here, including infringement of registered patents and “theft of trade secrets”. The remedy offered includes a ban on further imports, as well as a general ban on any further attempts to acquire this hardware.

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It seems that the ITC has become a useful tool in the arsenal of companies operating in America when seeking to avoid a lengthy court battle. The Meyer Brown law firm’s report on Section 337 explains that companies use the Commission because it provides a “very expedited procedure” and “powerful remedies” that “are not available in federal courts.”

If Samsung’s request is granted, it could prevent large quantities of third-party OLED displays from being imported into the US. This would have consequences for the small and medium-sized repair businesses that have grown up around fixing broken smartphone screens. It would also direct significantly more people to Samsung’s network of authorized service centers. Incidentally, the patents are applied to all OLED screens produced by Samsung, so even components of other smartphones that use Samsung technology, such as Apple’s, could be affected by the ITC’s decision.

The move comes shortly after Samsung also began offering genuine components for sale through iFixit for those who want to repair their phones at home. However, Samsung isn’t just offering the standalone screen for repair, but is only selling it alongside a new battery. Recently, the company also added components for the Galaxy S22 series to the iFixit offering.

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