Results so far in the “smartphone patent wars” have made it look like the attacks brought by patent plaintiffs might all amount to nothing. But a win by Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) today against HTC in the International Trade Venue could be a real threat to Android.
An administrative law judge has ruled that two Apple patents were infringed by various models of HTC phones, according to a report in Bloomberg.
Many of the lawsuits against smartphone manufacturers like HTC are being seen as a kind of proxy war against Google’s fast-growing Android operating system. Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), for example, is suing Motorola (NYSE: MMI) over patents; by attacking Google (NSDQ: GOOG) partners, Microsoft and Apple are hoping to hurt Google’s open-source system.
This case is being heard at the International Trade Commission, a part of the executive branch that holds quasi-judicial proceedings over patent disputes. An administrative judge has ruled in favor of Apple, but his ruling still has to be upheld by the full commission. So there’s another stage to go through, and HTC made that clear in its statement on the legal setback, with a spokeswoman telling Bloomberg the company will “vigorously fight these two remaining patents through an appeal before the ITC commissioners who make the final decision.”
HTC still has a decent chance of getting out of this at the full commission, which isn’t shy about reversing the decisions of ITC judges when it feels it’s appropriate. Just a few weeks ago, the ITC overruled much of a judge’s decisions in Kodak’s patent case against RIM (NSDQ: RIMM) and Apple.
Unlike a federal court, the ITC can’t offer any monetary damages; but it can bar a product from being imported into the U.S., which is usually worse for a losing defendant. (The import bans hardly ever go into force, as the losing defendant facing an import ban comes under enormous pressure to pay up for a patent license.)
In any case, if any company–and perhaps Apple in particular–were to actually start winning some cases in the smartphone battles, it’s not going to make developers happy, who often frown on IP litigation in the first place. Android developer Nick Bradbury responded to today’s legal developments by comparing Apple to notorious “patent troll” Lodsys, a company that has gone after small developers seeking license fees.