For Apple, One Win and Three Losses in Patent Case Against HTC

If all you did was read mainstream news reports, you might believe that Apple just delivered a "stinging legal blow" to smartphone rival HTC in a recent patent battle. But Apple won only on one minor point. Far more interesting is the news that the US International Trade Commission (USITC) actually found that HTC didn't violate three other Apple mobile industry patents.

But then that's the mainstreams news for you. The New York Times thought so much of a story that includes the phrase "Apple wins" that it placed it on the front page of the print newspaper today. (The much bigger story about AT&T abandoning its $39 billion purchase of T-Mobile was relegated to the Business section.)

But surely such a big case will have amazing ramifications for the mobile industry. Perhaps, as some reports breathlessly suggest, HTC will be banned from selling its phones in the United States. That would be amazing. 

But here's what's really going to happen: nothing at all. That's because HTC announced in the wake of the USITC ruling that it would simply remove or change the minor offending feature from the software on its phones. And it has until April 2012 to do so. As a result, no HTC phones will ever be banned from importation into the United States.

As you may know, various mobile companies are busy cross-suing other mobile industry companies. Keeping track of which company is suing which would require a complex, spaghetti-like chart, but suffice it to say, much of the legal attention is being focused on hardware makers like HTC that sell handsets based on Google's controversial Android OS. That's because many people believe—and former Apple CEO Steve Jobs believed—that Android is essentially "stolen goods" since it liberally, um, borrows from the intellectual property of many mobile industry innovators such as Apple, Microsoft, Palm, Research In Motion (RIM), and others. Feelings were hurt. Lawsuits were filed.

One of those suits involved Apple suing HTC for various patent infringements. And, again, Apple did win on one minor point: The USITC ruled that HTC's phones do infringe on an Apple patent that lets you tap on a phone number embedded in an email and do more than just dial that phone number; currently, a menu pops up, giving you additional options such as adding that number to an existing contact. So HTC will change that.

But here's what the New York Times and others aren't telling you. Apple sued HTC for a total of 20 patent violations back in 2010, and the USITC has ruled on four alleged patent violations so far. And the USITC ruled against Apple for three of the four. That is, the USITC has effectively invalidated three of Apple's patents claims against HTC.

"We are very pleased with the [USITC] determination and we respect it," HTC’s general counsel said. As they should be.
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