ITC Rules HTC Violates Apple Patent, Grants Import-Ban

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.