The Apple Watch Dilemma: A Patent Dispute Leads to a Surprising Ban

The tech world was taken aback on December 18th when Apple announced the unexpected removal of its Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2 from stores, starting December 24th. This drastic move came in response to a US International Trade Commission (ITC) ruling, which declared Apple’s infringement on Masimo’s pulse oximetry technology patents. The decision, a rare setback for Apple, marked a significant shift in the ongoing patent wars in the tech industry.

Infringement and the ITC Ruling

Earlier in the year, the ITC found that Apple had infringed on two of Masimo‘s patents, leading to an import ban on the Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2, effective from December 26th. The ruling came as a surprise to many, given Apple’s history of emerging unscathed from numerous lawsuits. Despite the skepticism, Apple preemptively halted sales of the affected models from December 21st at 3 PM ET, with a complete pull-out from Apple Stores post-December 24th.

Apple Watch Series 9 & Ultra 2
The Government’s Role and Statements

US Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre acknowledged the administration’s awareness of the impending December 25th deadline. Ambassador Tai, the US Trade Representative, was tasked with deciding on the ban’s future. This decision was closely watched, given its potential impact on a major US company and the broader tech industry.

Masimo’s Stance and Apple’s Attempted Solutions

Masimo’s CEO, Joe Kiani, expressed skepticism about Apple’s ability to circumvent the ban through software changes, asserting that the patents in question were hardware-based. In response, Apple reportedly started working on software alterations to resolve the ban. However, Apple’s path to appeal is long and uncertain, potentially taking up to 18 months.

The Scope of the Ban

The ban, limited to the US market, affects only the latest models – the Series 9 and Ultra 2. The Apple Watch SE, lacking the SpO2 sensor, remains unaffected. Interestingly, this ban does not impact international sales of these models.


Biden’s Involvement and Historical Context

President Biden upheld the ITC’s ruling, a move that aligns with the Biden administration’s stance on patent disputes. This decision mirrors a similar situation in 2013 when President Obama vetoed an import ban on iPhones and iPads following a dispute with Samsung. The current ruling lacks a public interest or health policy basis, reducing the likelihood of a presidential veto.

AliveCor’s Parallel Dispute

AliveCor, another medical tech company, has also sought an import ban on the Apple Watch, citing infringement of its EKG technology. This case further complicates Apple’s legal challenges, although the outcomes of these disputes may vary due to differing circumstances and patent specifics.

Options for Apple

To circumvent the ban, Apple could either redesign the watch to avoid the infringed patents or negotiate a licensing deal with Masimo. Manufacturing the watches within the US is another, albeit unlikely, option.

Impact on Apple and the Industry

The ban could significantly affect Apple, a major player in the smartwatch market, although it’s unlikely to cause irreparable harm to the company. For the tech industry, this case sets a precedent that could influence how wearable makers approach future health tech features.

Potential Consequences and Future Steps

The ban poses a challenge for Apple, especially during the holiday season. The company’s response and potential redesigns or software updates will be closely watched. The outcome of this dispute could have wide-reaching implications for patent battles in the tech industry.

The ban on Apple’s latest smartwatch models marks a turning point in the ongoing patent disputes in the tech industry. Apple’s response to this challenge, whether through legal means, redesigns, or negotiations, will be pivotal in shaping the future of tech patent disputes and the wearable technology market.

This case serves as a reminder of the complexities of intellectual property rights and the fine line tech companies must navigate in innovation. As we await further developments, the tech world watches closely to see how one of its giants adapts to this unexpected hurdle.

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