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U.S. appeals court grants Apple's request to pause smartwatch import ban

This illustration photo shows an Apple Watch 9 displaying the blood-oxygen level detection settings, in Los Angeles, on Tuesday.
Chris Delmas
AFP via Getty Images
This illustration photo shows an Apple Watch 9 displaying the blood-oxygen level detection settings, in Los Angeles, on Tuesday.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday temporarily halted an import ban on Apple's newest smartwatches, as the tech giant disputes findings that it violated the patents of medical technology company Masimo.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit made the ruling as it considers a longer term request by Apple to put the ban on hold as the company appeals a decision by the U.S. International Trade Commission.

In October, the ICT found some Apple Watches infringed on the patents of a blood oxygen sensor made by Masimo. Apple has included the feature on most of its smartwatches since 2020.

Apple has denied that it violated any Masimo patents, saying it consulted with several medical technology companies before coming up with its own version of the blood oxygen tool.

The commission also issued a ban on imports of the Series 9 and Ultra 2 versions, which included the technology. Earlier this month, Apple pulled those products from store shelves.

In an emailed statement, Apple said the Series 9 and Ultra 2 watches, including the blood oxygen feature, would again be available for purchase in the U.S. at its stores on Wednesday and from apple.com by noon PST Thursday.

Apple filed its emergency request to halt the ban after the White House decided not to intervene and the ITC's decision became final on Dec. 26.

Gene Munster, a longtime Apple analyst, told NPR that Apple was likely counting on the Biden administration to reverse the decision and the stay by the appeals court was "another twist."

"I think it's advantage Apple here, they have this piece in their favor here, and what's more important than their jockeying in the courts is Apple's ability to find a workaround," Munster said.

Apple said it was pleased that the court "has stayed the exclusion order while it considers our request to stay the order pending our full appeal."

It also said it strongly disagreed with the import ban and was pursuing legal and technical options.

Masimo, a publicly traded company based in Irvine, Calif., told NPR previouslythat it viewed Apple's earlier move to pause watch sales as vindication for its alleged wrongdoing.

Masimo did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Philip Elmer-DeWitt, a reporter and editor who has covered Apple since 1983, suggested the company might have strategically pulled some of its watches before filing its emergency request to the appeals court.

"Apple managed to turn a patent loss into a marketing opportunity, creating a sense of a false shortage so that people would rush out and get these things before they were off the market," he said, adding that the appeals court stay could be considered a "finger in the eye" for the U.S. International Trade Commission.

According to court documents, Masimo held meetings with Apple in 2013 about using the medical technology company's tools in Apple products, but the talks broke down.

Later, Apple hired two executives and key engineers from Masimo.

Masimo has claimed in legal filings that Apple poached the employees in order to illegally duplicate its technology.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is currently considering Apple's software redesign to the watch models and is expected to make a decision by Jan. 12.

"This could be a long, drawn out game of cat and mouse about whether they're infringing on the patents," Munster said. "If they're successful at getting the workaround to get the product back on the market, I suspect that would be a measurable win for them to win the case in the long term."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Natalie Schachar