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Apple wins skirmish in HTC-Google patent war

One part of one patent bans import of Android phones (maybe)

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The US International Trade Commission has handed Apple a victory in its patent dispute with Android-phonemaker HTC, banning the Taiwanese company's infringing phones from importation into the US. The full impact of the victory's implications, however, remains to be seen.

"Notice is hereby given that the U.S. International Trade Commission has ... issued a limited exclusion order prohibiting importation of infringing personal data and mobile communications devices and related software," reads the ITC decision, issued Monday.

While the ITC language may sound sweeping, the patent violations it cited are quite limited in scope. Out of the 10 patents, each with mutiple alleged infringed-upon claims, that had begun the ITC review process, only two claims of one patent were – after all appeals were exhausted – found to be infringed upon.

Apple's patent in question is US Patent No. 5,946,647, "System and method for performing an action on a structure in computer-generated data". The two claims, numbers 1 and 8, for which the ITC found HTC in violation are in its Android operating system, and relate to "detecting structures in data and performing actions on detected structures".

As examples of the "structures" in question, the patent offers phone numbers, e-mail addresses, post-office addresses, zip codes, and dates. The user's "action" could be, for example, tapping on a detected and highlighted phone number in an email or contact list to make a phone call to that number.

In an emailed statement, HTC said that infringed-upon part of "the '647 patent is a small UI experience and HTC will completely remove it from all of our phones soon." Whether that is actually the case, and if Google and HTC can breezily make that change, then the ITC ruling should be of little consequence.

If, however, Apple uses the ITC ruling to now launch complaints against any or all other manufacturers of Android based smartphones running any or all versions of Android, those two claims of that one patent could cause a world of hurt for the US Android ecosystem.

It should be noted, however, that the ITC did not put an outright ban on infringing HTC phones that have already made their way into the US, but instead merely issued an "exclusion" that will prevent those phones from being imported after April 19, 2012. The ITC will also allow HTC to import "refurbished handsets" to replace phones under warranty or insurance contracts until December 19, 2013.

The next step in this song-and-dance would appear to be that Google and HTC will attempt to provide a patch to afflicted affected versions of Android, Apple will likely assert that the patched versions still violate claims 1 and 8 of US Patent No. 5,946,647, and the ITC will conduct another investigation.

It's unlikely that HTC is about to be forced out of the US market anytime in the foreseeable future, but it's equally unlikely that the end of the Apple-Android patent war is anywhere in sight. Today's ITC ruling was just one skirmish in one battle, and the patent war is being fought on many, many fronts. ®

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