December 19, 2011 11:46 pm

Apple wins limited patent victory over HTC

Apple has won a ban on the import into the US of some handsets from HTC, the Taiwanese hardware maker, in an early test case in the patent wars that have roiled the smartphone industry.

However, the impact of the closely watched decision is likely to be muted, bringing relief to HTC and other handset makers who use Google’s Android mobile phone software, according to US legal experts.

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The case before the US International Trade Commission became an early test of Apple’s attempts to limit the inroads that Android has made into the smartphone market, after a US judge issued a preliminary ruling in July that HTC had infringed two of the four Apple patents at the heart of the case.

The Google software is included in more than half of the smartphones sold in the US, with HTC accounting for about 10 per cent of total sales, according to market estimates. Apple has argued that Google stole ideas from the iPhone for its Android software, with late Apple boss Steve Jobs telling his biographer Walter Isaacson that he would “go thermonuclear war” against Google on the issue.

On Monday, the ITC found for Apple, although it limited its decision to only one patent, while also rejecting two of the four claims on the patent that had been upheld by the earlier judge.

“If I’m HTC – and particularly if I’m Google – I’m feeling a lot better today than if I’m Apple,” said Ron Cass, a former vice-chairman of the ITC. The limited judgment should leave room for Android handset makers to adjust their software in ways that mean they no longer infringe on Apple’s claims, he added.

The patent singled out by the ITC allows smartphone users to use touch to interact with data, for instance dialling a phone number contained in an email by clicking on it. Though the feature is one that has come to be expected by smartphone users, many intellectual property experts considered the patent easier for HTC to work around with its own technology than the other patent at the heart of the case, which concerned core mobile technology.

In another concession to HTC, the ITC said its import ban would be delayed until April 19 next year to allow mobile operators that sell its phones to prepare. That would allow further time for the Taiwanese company to introduce handsets that get around the narrow ruling, Mr Cass said.

ITC rulings are reviewed by the US president, although Ronald Reagan was the last to overturn one of its decisions. HTC will also have the chance to take the decision to a federal appeals court before the April deadline.

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