ITC Rules HTC Violates Apple Patent, Grants Import-Ban

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The U.S. International Trade Commission announced on Monday that HTC’s Android smartphones violate one of Apple’s patents. The ruling included an import band on any HTC devices that violate this patent starting on April 19th, 2012.

Apple vs. HTC

This ruling involves a complaint Apple brought to the ITC over ten patents the company said that HTC was infringing with its Android devices. This final ruling from the ITC narrows all of those infringement charges to just two specific claims relating to one of those patents—Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents characterized this patent as having only medium value.

That is, in part, because it covers a feature not included in Android itself, but rather a feature added to the smartphone OS by HTC itself. The claim covers a method for making data like a phone number tappable within an unstructured document.

In other words, it covers a way of detecting data within a document, determining that it’s a phone number (for example), and making that phone number tappable by the user so that it opens another app such as a phone dialer (in this case).

If HTC, or Google, as is more likely the case, can implement this same feature in a way that doesn’t violate Apple’s patent, Apple’s victory becomes moot.

There are several important aspects of this, however. The first is that this is a great example of why Apple is suing and complaining about Android hardware makers, as opposed to Google, which actually develops Android. There are several features, such as the one covered in this case, that Google hasn’t included in Android because they are covered by patents owned by Microsoft, Apple, and other firms.

Google’s hardware OEMs have implemented them on their own because they are excellent features (that Apple innovatively developed and brought to market). Apple has claimed that the device makers it is suing and complaining about are trying to profit from Apple’s patent-protected innovations.

The second important aspect of this case is that all HTC has to do to not violate Apple’s patent is to not copy this particular technology. The same is true for many of the other patent infringement claims Apple has made against HTC, Samsung, Motorola Mobility, and other Android device makers. That’s part of why Mr. Mueller said this patent has only medium value and called the victory a “narrow” one.

If HTC did release its phones without this technology, the company would be at a competitive disadvantage to Apple’s iPhones that do offer it. The ability to have phone numbers auto detected and made tappable without user input is a great feature of touch screen iPhones. Apple has been making the case that it brought these innovations to market and should thus be able to profit from them.

None of which is meant to over simplify this or other cases. Apple has its own issues when it comes to infringing on third party patents, though many of those are related to industry-required technologies governed by Fair & Reasonable Nondiscriminatory Licensing terms. Those complaints are most likely to end in Apple paying FRAND licensing rates, rather than import bans against Apple devices.

The last element of this ITC ruling to note is that what has made HTC the softest target in Apple’s patent crusade is that the company has the most meager patent portfolio of its own. By securing victories over HTC, Apple has a better chance of leveraging those same patents against other companies, and HTC is the least equipped to fight defend itself.

This ruling is independent of another case Apple has against HTC, where the ITC is reviewing a preliminary ruling from an Administrative Law Judge that found HTC is infringing on two out of another four Apple patents. ITC has its complaints against Apple, as well.

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9 Comments Leave Your Own

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

I’m not going to bother reading known astroturfer Florian M?eller’s take on this, but the Verge, in an article written by a real lawyer and not just some guy who claims to speak German and thus be an expert on German patent law, clarified that Google changed things up in Gingerbread (2.3) to avoid this particular patent issue. Affected phones in the order apparently don’t ship with Gingerbread installed (yet). By April, with the natural upgrade pace, they’re probably a moof point for new sales on all but the smallest regional carriers. Refurb replacements should take most customers with these phones through their contracts.

I wonder what Nemo thinks about this. At the end of the summer, he was absolutely sure that the ITC would find infringement on every count Apple brought before it. My own opinion of what the ITC is really doing here is telling Apple to take its beefs to federal court where they belong and stop wasting the ITC’s time.

Terrin

My own opinion of what the ITC is really doing here is telling Apple to take its beefs to federal court where they belong and stop wasting the ITC?s time.

Apple did sue HTC in federal court contemporaneously with the ITC.  The ITC’s job is to block the importation of products that infringe IP. So that is a proper venue. Nonetheless, the ITC path is used to merely try and gain leverage for a quick settlement to the federal suit. Look at the recent Novell suit against Microsoft. It was filed it in 2006, the trial ended in a mistrial just last week with a 11 jurors siding with Novell and 1 Juror halfway siding with Novell. So, this case will go back to trial. Why would anybody want to wait for the federal court to decide anything? As you alluded by the time the matter the resolved, the technology is not even an issue anymore.

The ITC case is usually a gamble by any company, as historically it hardly ever finds infringement. When it does, however, a quick resolution generally happens in the federal court.

Moreover, Apple is suing in Foreign Courts for the same reason it filed a claim with the ITC. Foreign Courts generally make decisions quicker. It can use favorably decisions as leverage to resolve the issue in other Countries.

John Dingler, artist

Hello Brad,
I thought that the article made clear that Google is not the infringer; HTC is because it accreted this functionality on to Google’s OS, so perhaps you can explain what you are on about Google in the context of this article.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

To the extent that the article relies on known astroturfer Florian M?eller for alleged facts, the article is suspect. Sorry Bryan, sources matter. This clown’s analysis from late August, early September convinced Nemo that the ITC would overturn all of the ALJ’s findings to give a result heavily in Apple’s favor. Nemo is a smart guy, so I think we can conclude that the disconnect with reality comes from the known astroturfer, Florian M?eller.

My understanding is that the data detector patent was specifically worked around in Android 2.3, using a non-infringing method. My understanding is also that this order affects phones that ship with earlier versions of Android installed. Technically, HTC would need to re-image the phones with a later version of Android before importing new stock. In reality, what will happen is that the major carriers will have completely phased affected phones out by April.

HTC ships its own custom email app (and other common apps) as part of its “Sense” overlay of Android. To the extent that their apps violate the patent claim, HTC will have to correct those. This decision, as silly and inconsequential as it is, may drive the handset makers closer to stock implementations or more separable UI overlays, which may be a net positive of this for Android fans.

Terrin

My understanding is that the data detector patent was specifically worked around in Android 2.3, using a non-infringing method. My understanding is also that this order affects phones that ship with earlier versions of Android installed. Technically, HTC would need to re-image the phones with a later version of Android before importing new stock. In reality, what will happen is that the major carriers will have completely phased affected phones out by April.

Funny you talk about other’s sources or lack thereof but you don’t explain where your understanding comes from.

Further, you might not like Mueller’s opinion as it tends to lean toward favoring Apple, but unlike you, he at least 1) provides the actual court documents to read yourself, and 2) has opinions based on the available documents. He spends more time reviewing the docs, then the actual lawyers probably do.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Actually Terrin, my knowledge comes from actually developing for Android, using Android, and keeping up with Android news. And my knowledge tends to be pretty consistent with reality. You know, like the known astroturfer M?eller asserted that the ITC would find in favor of Apple on most all of its claims, a position regurgitated without much actual digestion by our own Nemo. Another fact I really haven’t brought up out of respect for the triviality of some not seeing the inevitable is the expected Q4 market share of Android tablets. Y’all know why Apple is suing and complaining… they can’t compete.

But, since you’ve called a pissing match on facts to order, I’m gonna go bring back a few barrels. Stay tuned…

P.S. You guys all know what an astroturfer is, right? He’s someone who is paid to present the party line of an interested party. M?eller did this for Microsoft during the SCO affair, in order to cast doubt on the IP position of Linux. I bought into his arguments then, without realizing he was being paid to make them and just stir crap up. Microsoft sales reps could then point to his articles when confronted with customers who were thinking about Linux. The irony of the same Mac community that made an industry out of hating on Rob Enderle a few years back embracing M?eller as some kind of prophet is biting.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

This ruling is independent of another case Apple has against HTC, where the ITC is reviewing a preliminary ruling from an Administrative Law Judge that found HTC is infringing on two out of another four Apple patents. ITC has its complaints against Apple, as well.

Bryan, this is just plain incorrect. The two patents in question in the story you link to were the data detector patent and the signal processing patent. The ITC found, contrary to the ALJ’s opinion, that HTC did not violate the signal processing patent. Point is, this is really the same action. Did M?eller confuse that too? Like I said, he’s probably being paid to cheerlead Apple in its stupid IP war, so I don’t bother reading him.

jfbiii

And my knowledge tends to be pretty consistent with reality.

I think everyone here is quite familiar with how consistently your knowledge matches up with reality. In particular, it seems that “known astroturfer” is based on one disclosed commissioned study. But hey, if you repeat an accusation—true or not—on the web often enough it eventually shows up in searches, right?

RonMacGuy

I think everyone here is quite familiar…

grin  Nice, jfbiii.  Sad thing is, I’m sure Nemo is just fed up with the garbage going on around here.  Pity, as he provided some good information and valuable input here.

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