ITC Ruling Pushes HTC Onto Thin Ice in Apple Patent Brawl

Apple did not violate four HTC patents, an International Trade Commission judge has ruled.

HTC filed a complaint with the commission in May 2010, alleging Apple infringed on several mobile patent technologies, including those for power management of mobile devices and phone dialing. It asked the ITC to bar the importation of Apple devices that used those technologies, namely its line of iPods, iPhones and iPads.

Instead, Charles Bullock, the administrative law judge hearing the case, said that the four HTC patents were valid. The full commission will decide in February whether to uphold his decision.

One Skirmish, Very Big War

Even if the ruling is upheld, it will resolve just one skirmish in a larger, very complex patent war between HTC and Apple.

The companies have been exchanging allegations of patent infringement for years, both in the ITC — a common stop for patent disputes as the agency can ban the importation of devices or components — and in U.S. federal court.

For the moment, HTC appears to be absorbing the worst of the blows, at least in the ITC venue. Prior to this latest determination, the agency ruled that HTC was in violation of two Apple patents. It will issue its final decision in that case on Dec. 6.

HTC and Apple did not respond to the E-Commerce Times’ requests to comment for this story.

Different Courts, Similar Laws

The ITC ruling may indeed have addressed just one of the issues between the companies, but its outcome is an important one, Alexander Poltorak, chairman and CEO of the General Patent Corporation, told the E-Commerce Times.

“This was an important victory for Apple,” he said, “because although the decision of the ITC is not necessarily binding on the federal court, where this dispute is also being heard, it still does carry some weight.”

Essentially, the underlying laws and arguments made on behalf of those laws by Apple and HTC are the same in both forums, Poltorak explained, and the fact “that the judge ruled that all four patents were valid is highly indicative of the strength of Apple’s case.”

HTC’s Ray of Hope

All is not lost for HTC, however. For starters, the ITC does not have the ability to award damages, Poltorak pointed out. Also, there is an appeals process at the ITC, which HTC can and likely will pursue.

“HTC and Apple are locked in a very complicated dispute involving multiple patents taking place over multiple legal venues,” he said. “An appeal is almost a certainty in a case this complicated.”

Still, it will be an uphill climb for HTC both at the ITC and at federal court, predicted Christopher M. Collins, a partner with Vanderpool, Frostick & Nishanian.”The ITC was the first big hurdle for HTC, and if they fail there it is a high bar for them to overcome.”

It’s not that the level of deference to the ITC in the district court system is very high, but they do look at these decisions, he noted.

More problematic is the upcoming ruling on Dec. 6. If it goes against HTC, it will likely include an exclusion order for the products involved.

“That is going to be HTC’s biggest problem in the near future,” said Collins — “not this initial determination.”

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